“Sometimes all you need is an infinite number of heroes.’ – tagline to Patchwerk.
Patchwerk, the new novella by David Tallerman, is a complete action story that takes place over the course of a single flowing scene, yet shifts across half a dozen realities. The protagonist, Dran Florrian, is the inventor of the Palimpsest, a machine capable of reaching across the fabric of reality, linking one universe with the next. When someone tries to steal the Palimpsest, and so to turn Florrian’s invention into a weapon, the device is triggered. Florrian finds himself on the run across realities, all without leaving the aircraft he’s on.
Except that now the aircraft is an airship. No, wait, it’s a train. Nope, it’s some kind of living, throbbing vehicle, and Florrian’s an insect.
Florrian is in for a difficult ride.
Action and Adventure in 134 Pages
The novella format lends itself well to the story Tallerman’s telling here. With fewer pages to play with, the story doesn’t get strung out, and a keen reader could get through it in a single long sitting.* Like a well-made action movie or a good graphic novel, it maintains a pace that keeps you going, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be getting the payoff soon. The different worlds Florrian is exposed to are interesting, and there’s an emotional heart to the story that gives it extra substance, as well as a satisfying finale.
Remember that TV show Sliders? It came out in the 1990s, when TV executives had realised that science fiction could sell, but weren’t yet willing to give it a decent budget. Week after week, the heroes jumped from one reality to the next. Most of the worlds they visited looked almost exactly like a modern American TV lot, and none of the adventures carried much emotional weight, as each one was wrapped up before they jumped worlds. Reasons to care were thin on the ground.
Patchwerk is the opposite of that. With only a few words, Tallerman hints at worlds which are both familiar and very different from our own, creating the sort of richness that emerges from careful implication. Because the characters and situation carry over from one reality to the next, you’re already engaged in each one. If you care enough to get past the first few pages then you will keep on caring.
It’s not a story of vast depth and substance, but as an adventure story it’s very satisfying.
The Return of the Novella
For those watching the publishing industry, Patchwerk is also a marker in a wider trend – the growing diversity of formats. As indie authors have been pointing out for several years, novellas sell, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary. How you sell them is a trickier issue and one that publishers Tor have tackled in launching a range of novellas. From sprawling epic series to stand alone flash fiction, there’s a wider range of reading options available than ever before, giving readers huge choice.
Yet there’s still resistance to this in traditional publishing. After all, resistance to change is what established institutions do. Ten minutes after thrusting Patchwerk into my eager hands, Tallerman himself was declaring that fifty thousand words doesn’t count as a novel, even though it’s an accepted length in YA, indie publishing and romance – the latter being the most flourishing market out there. Ole mental habits die hard. Tor have stepped cautiously into trying something new with novellas, and there are plenty of people predicting that they’ll fail, or that what they’re doing won’t catch on.
This line of novellas may or may not work for Tor. If they fail, traditional sf+f publishers will once again declare the novella dead, and probably not dig any deeper into what went wrong. If they succeed, expect others to tiptoe slowly onto the bandwagon.
In the meantime, we get some cracking short reads, Patchwerk among them. If you like quick adventure stories or tales of parallel realities then give it a go.
Disclaimer: David is a friend of mine, and he gave me my copy of Patchwerk. If I hadn’t liked it I just wouldn’t have blogged about it – a general policy I take to books, so that I can keep this space positive. But still, bias warning, I was pre-disposed to like this one.
* It took me two, interrupted by the arrival of my new Playstation.