Joe Hill’s Gunpowder, my pick for best novella

A couple of weeks ago it was announced that Joe Hill’s Gunpowder is on the short list for the British Fantasy Award.  If there is any justice, this great science fiction novella will win, and other awards will follow from this side of the pond.

I like novellas best. I have friends who just love to sit down with big, fat novels and who become addicted to series. I have other friends who love short stories, who say they just don’t have time to devote to a “whole book.” Of course, I have other friends (curse them) who don’t read at all. I read short stories and big books and even, occasionally, series, but I like novellas best.

For me, 20,000-25,000 words is just the right length for a science fiction or fantasy story, long enough for the author to establish a plot and develop a charismatic character, or even several, but short enough that I haven’t forgotten those characters’ names as I approach the climax. I can usually read the tale in one sitting, so I don’t let the vicissitudes of life get in the way. And I know that, when I reach the end, I won’t be surprised to discover that I need to read the next volume to find out what happens to those characters.

Unfortunately, it seems most major publishers don’t agree with me. And, in these economic times, many book buyers are even more concerned with the cost per page than the quality of what they read, so the fiscal reality is that not many novellas see print, except those published by (all gods bless them) small presses.

And, although there are several fine small publishing houses in the U.S., one of the best is England’s PS Publishing, which brings me to Gunpowder, at 22,600 words, my kind of story. And, though the slipcased and signed/limited versions are sold out, the unsigned hardcover, at $18 or just 22¢ per page, is still available from the publisher.

When I read the title, I was prepared for a weird western in the tradition of Joe Lansdale or Nancy Collins, and I do like weird westerns. But although the setting is a desert planet, there are no zombie cowboys or Apache werewolves here. Think more John Hersey’s The Child Buyer on steroids meets William Golding’s Lord of the Flies with a touch of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan thrown in—all this on a distant planet unfit for human habitation.

Alone on the planet they will eventually name Gunpowder (for reasons that will become obvious) are a group of boys just reaching adolescence and Elaine, the woman who has always acted as their mother.

Each boy, except for Charley, has a unique talent that has been nurtured from his genetically enhanced inception. They can create things and change things and make things grow with the powers of their minds. If all works out, they will be able to terraform the planet in a generation instead of the hundreds or thousands of years it would take with other means.

Charley’s only talent is telekinesis, and what good is that? So Charley builds a wall, and the other boys tease him, and Elaine probably loves him the most.

But things have changed in the “civilized” part of the galaxy, and wars are brewing. A new woman arrives with a spaceship loaded with soldiers. She wants to replace Elaine and have the boys change the focus of their talents to creating weapons.

It is never a good idea to try to take a boy’s mother away from him, a lesson the woman and the soldiers are about to learn.

This is top-notch science fiction story, not a wasted word. It’s my pick for best novella of the year, and, in case you hadn’t guessed, I really like novellas.

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