In Matthew Johnson’s debut novel, Fall from Earth, convicts from the all-human Borderless Empire are deposited on an alien world. Very quickly things go wrong: the colony leader shows no willingness to lead; a problem with the supplies forces them to break the rules to survive; and the planet very quickly is shown to have alien life — something that the Empire, with its total control over its citizens (the colonists include theological and political prisoners), suppresses any knowledge of. And the colonists soon discover that they were sent there as more than just prisoners.
This is a fast-paced, ambitious novel with a rich background and some serious and effective world-building, along with a cast of vibrant characters. But it’s hampered by its length: it’s just not long enough to deal with its eight or nine viewpoint characters. The relationship between the main character, Shi Jin, and the two administrators, with their past history, could have been a novel in and of itself. Fall from Earth needed to be much longer, on the scale of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, to deal with all the characters’ implications and permutations, or much simpler, with fewer characters. Johnson told me via Twitter that he’d had to cut 15,000 words for commercial reasons; I suspect he could have added at least as many. (But first-time science fiction writers rarely get to write big books on their first outing because of printing costs: big books need to sell lots of copies because they cost more to print, and first novels don’t sell well enough for that.)
Having said that, I’ve enjoyed Johnson’s short fiction — in particular “The Coldest War,” “Heroic Measures” and the nasty little “Long Pig” — and from what I’ve seen here, I’ll have no hesitation picking up his next book. Watch this guy.
Update: Matt wants it known that while it’s possible Fall From Earth should have been longer, “I think Fall From Earth is a better book as a result of the cuts” — he doesn’t want anyone to think that his editor’s edits, and 15,000 words of cuts, harmed the book (1, 2, 3). In other words, if, as I argue above, more words needed to be added, they’re not necessarily the same words that were taken out in editing.