Novellas are stories which range from 17,500 to 40,000 words, and they can be read within one sitting. Novellas—along with novelettes and short stories—continue to be written, published and read by all within the publishing industry and the reading community. While novellas are written for all literary genres, in recent years, more of them have been published and read for speculative fiction. That’s NOT to say that they weren’t available, just that there are more available to read now. While Tor.com appears to be dominating the market with novellas—which is NOT a bad thing—there are many novellas from Saga Press, Harper Voyager, DAW Books, and all of the magazines that publish them. There are numerous standalone novellas for speculative fiction fans to read, and there are series—some of which are ongoing—that are worth reading as well. Yes, all of these novellas on this list were released by Tor.com originally, but this is the first list of many that I’m compiling and presenting. It just so happens that one publisher releases more novellas than other ones (for now).
Tensorate by Neon (formerly known as J.Y.) Yang (2017-19)
This series was my introduction into silkpunk. Asian influence aside the story follows the lives of the Royal Family of Protectorate, particularly Protector Sanao—The Empress—and her youngest children—twins, Mokoya and Akeha—as they struggle to maintain control over the Empire as a rebellion grows more ruthless to match the Protector’s cruelty. However, it isn’t just the family saga or the politics that will intrigue readers, but the concept of biological sex and gender fluidity which is a mundane cultural practice in that world. I have read comparisons of this series to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (I haven’t read it, yet). Regardless, this quartet is worth reading.
The subplot of prophecy versus fate versus free will runs its course throughout the series, too. And yes, all of the books come full circle in the end, which will leave you emitting empathy for all of the protagonists. Not to mention, the last few chapters in the fourth book will stay with you for a long time.
I love it when authors write stories across genres. After reading Rosewater, The Murders of Molly Southbourne intrigued me with its plot: when a young woman bleeds, clones are created. So, not only does Molly have to prevent herself from bleeding, but also learn how to fight, to kill, and to dispose of these clones. So, how does Molly live her life with this “unusual ‘medical’ condition”? Is there a way to stop it? Is there a cure? Even the second book leaves Molly (and readers) with more questions than answers. Hopefully, the next book will let us know what Molly will do next.
This is a sci-fi horror/thriller series about the lengths a family will go to in order to protect their secret, and what an individual is willing to do in order to maintain their identity. Even if you’re not into sci-fi or horror or thriller, then you should still read this series because readers receive the point-of-view of the victim who never stood a chance for a “normal” life.
This Africanfuturistic series will remind readers that with space exploration, xenophobia will continue to be an issue, and only choosing to understand those who are different from themselves will resolve conflict. The series follows Binti as she decides to break one of her culture’s traditions to leave her home to study at the most prestigious universities in the galaxy. However, during the voyage, the ship is attacked by a race of aliens claiming something was stolen from them. When Binti finds herself to be the lone survivor of the attack, she realizes that her skills as a harmonizer will ensure her survival.
The rest of the series deals with both the aftermath and the consequences of Binti’s actions. Readers follow Binti’s first year at the university as she learns to overcome her classes, her PTSD, and her reunion with her family (amongst other things). Binti manages to overcome all of the obstacles she faces while attempting to maintain peace amongst various races and cultures in the galaxy. I’m looking forward to the TV adaptation of this series!
Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire (2016-Present)
This series takes everything you know about portal world fantasy and gives it a dose of reality with multiple worlds existing next to ours. The series centers on a school for children who went “missing” only to return “changed” from their “ordeal.” Their parents believe they are sending their children to a school for therapy; but, the school is a haven for the “visitors” to meet others like themselves who hope to return “home.”
The series alternates between the present and the past allowing readers to learn about the ongoings at the school—and its students—as well as all of the worlds the students reside in, and where they were able to become their true selves. The fact that some of these students might never be able to return “home” adds the reality to the situation that leaves you feeling emotionally twisted as to what our world does to all of us.
Murderbot is my favorite robot/A.I. of all-time (sorry R2-D2)! I don’t know what else I can say about this snarky and depressed A.I. who performs its tasks so it has more time to watch its favorite TV show?! Murderbot has more empathy for humans than it’s willing to admit, and that’s what makes the series so relatable and engaging. Throughout the first four novellas in this series, Murderbot performs its latest task with a group of scientists, discovers corruption, then decides to travel to various planets to collect evidence of the crime.
While Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel gave Murderbot the novel length adventure the A.I. deserved (I haven’t read it yet, I’m sorry), Murderbot will return to novellas when the next book in the series, Fugitive Telemetry is released in 2021. I hope the author continues to delight her fans and her readers with this series. And, I want to read an episode of Sanctuary Moon!
This is just a starter list of novellas all readers should read. Readers who either want a quick read, or who want to meet their reading goal by the end of the year should check out these books. As for other novella series, I hope to include Impossible Times by Mark Lawrence, Valkyrie Collections by Brian McClellan, Finna by Nino Cipri, others in a future post. As for standalone novellas, I hope to compile a list of them in the near future!
Winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella 2017, the Hugo, the Alex, and the Locus Award for Best Novella 2018
PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers for all four novellas. You have been warned.
Murderbots aren’t allowed to ride with the humans and I had to have verbal permission to enter. With my cracked governor there was nothing to stop me, but not letting anybody, especially the people who held my contract, know that I was a free agent was kind of important. Like, not having my organic components destroyed and the rest of me cut up for parts important (Chapter 1).
Out of the numerous stories and representations of robots—whether or not they are AI’s or drones—Murderbot is the most interesting one in recent years. All Systems Red, the first novella in the series, has won numerous awards since its 2017 publication. These intriguing science fiction tales of an acerbic robot who travels the galaxy in search of its identity, the humans who created it, and the humans who hired it are a humorous and a descriptive look into both Martha Wells’ galaxy and at the spectrum of robots and their relationship to humans.
All Systems Red opens with Murderbot, a Security Unit, performing its job—with a new contract with a new crew of scientists on a hostile planet—and complaining how it wants to be left alone to re-watch his favorite TV show, Sanctuary Moon. Also, it found a way to hack its government module, so it can store more entertainment shows, and not follow company issued orders as much. Typically, Security Units, or “SecUnits, or any other robot for that matter, will be dismantled if it is discovered that they have gone “rogue.”
Our SecUnit wants nothing more than to perform its job protecting humans, so it can watch human TV shows to criticize. The current group it is assigned to is willing to interact with it. At the same time, the SecUnit and the scientists realize that the planet is more hostile than mentioned in their report.
Throughout this story, readers learn that the SecUnit is still willing to perform its job, regardless of going “rogue,” and that it calls itself, “Murderbot.” However, it does question its purpose and its past; all the while it is trying to learn and to determine humans and their behavior. It could be the reason it watches all those TV shows.
Unfortunately, this assignment is not a simple one. To the dismay of both Murderbot and the scientists: Mensah, Pin-Lee, Ratthi, Gurathin and others, there are hostiles on the planet, and they attack the group. Our SecUnit demonstrates its abilities as both a fighter and a strategist. Murderbot perform its tasks to the extreme gratitude of the scientists—it gets “bought”—and, it believes there was a plot set by the corporation, GrayCris, to harm everyone—human and AI—who travel to the planet.
By the end of this story, Murderbot decides to leave its new “owner” in order to determine what the corporation, GrayCris, and its parent companies, such as Port FreeCommerce, have done to it, the scientists, and the other Security Units. In addition, it is worried about losing its purpose so maybe it wants to be able to perform what it was designed to do one last time.
Artificial Condition picks up where All Systems Red leaves off, with our SecUnit traveling in disguise through a crowded station in order to complete its quest. It is shocked when it see itself on the news and reported as “missing.” However, it is still determined to accomplish its task, alone.
Murderbot ends up on a transport with a research robot that decides to assist our protagonist on its journey by providing it with a disguise. The interaction between the two AIs is what makes this story very poignant. Murderbot “appreciates” the help the other AI gives it. In return, the two AIs watch episodes of TV shows and discuss the realities and the misconceptions in them, particularly about the various AIs presented on the shows.
This novella is more about character development than anything involving GrayCris and the scientists, but it allows readers to learn more about AIs when there are no humans around. Murderbot displays its humanity by going against what it was programmed to do. This is a rogue bot with a scrambled governor module that still performs its task to offer protection to humans. And yet, everything is tied to GrayCris.
Rogue Protocol has our SecUnit at the location of a GrayCris excavation site in order to commence its investigation into the company. Once again, Murderbot finds itself working with a group of humans and their “pet” AI. Only this time, both the humans, and the readers learn how corrupt GrayCris is and how much effort the company puts into keeping its secrets from everyone else.
Our SecUnit continues to think about its owner, Dr. Mensah, and the other human scientists it left behind while assisting this group of scientists and researchers and keeping them from making the same almost fatal blunders as Murderbot’s group of humans. Murderbot continues to fascinate us by performing more of its functions: hacking, thinking, communicating, and fighting. Martha Wells reminds us that our protagonist is NOT a rogue SecUnit with a violent streak! Unfortunately, the “enemy” AIs are aware of what Murderbot is capable of doing without its governor module. And, all for some alien remnants.
Murderbot is able to collect the evidence needed to prove GrayCris’ corruption and illegal activities. Although the consequences to the mission leaves Murderbot feeling guilty (even though it won’t admit it), it is confident that everything will work out once it returns to HaveRatton Station and Dr. Mensah. Too bad the readers are human and know the lengths corruption can reach.
Exit Strategy comes full circle for Murderbot’s personal mission. Murderbot returns to HaveRatton Station with the evidence needed to takedown GrayCris only to learn that its owner/friend, Dr. Mensah, has been abducted and is being held captive by the corporation due to its actions. Because no one is aware that Murderbot is a rogue SecUnit—with a few exceptions—it realizes quickly the possible repercussions of its actions against GrayCris. Feeling responsible, Murderbot decides to find the rest of the Preservation Team—Pin-Lee, Ratthi, and Gurathin—to rescue Mensah.
Reuniting with the characters from All Systems Redis both refreshing and directing because readers are reminded as to why Murderbot decided to defy orders—again—and function in a way it believes is the right way. At the same time, it is reminded that it still cares for the Preservation Team and why its relationships with them remind it of the AIs and the other humans from its journey to and from the GrayCris excavation site. Murderbot learns about the desperation and the collaboration of both GrayCris and Port FreeCommerce, too.
Murderbot’s role in the rescue of Mensah is all that readers expect and more. It has to think like both a bot and a human constantly because that is whom it is up against. Martha Wells does an excellent job describing the rescue mission, incorporating the characters’ dialogue, and hinting at Murderbot’s wants and purposes now that it fulfilled its goal. The ending suggests that Murderbot will be able to continue performing what it is programed to do, helping humans, while enjoying its hobby, watching media.
In all, Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries delivers what science fiction readers want: a flawed but relatable protagonist, a look at the (continuing) issues amongst the human race, various settings and locations in space, dialogues with humans and AIs, and several fights involving humans and AIs with guns. Now, all we need besides the upcoming Murderbot novel is an episode of Sanctuary Moon.