Kagan, Janet: Hellspark

After reading Mirabile, I grabbed Kagan’s Hellspark when I saw it in the library. I finished it last night. While not as cheerful and comfort-book-like as Mirabile, it’s still a good read.

Hellspark is the story of a survey team on a new planet, internally split over whether the major animal life form is sentient or not. Adding to the tension, a team member has died—murder? accident? No-one knows. Into this situation comes Tocohl Susumo, whose planet of Hellspark emphasizes linguistic and cultural fluency. Since everyone on the team is from a different culture, and they were briefed by an idiot, and since one marker of sentience is language, well, she’s quite welcome. (Her extrapolative computer doesn’t hurt; I don’t read many AI stories, but Maggy seems like a good one to me.)

Some of the cultural tics presented seem a little extreme to me, and while I don’t doubt that body language is a very important component of language, I was starting to get a little jaded by the nth time some problem was solved by Tocohl’s noticing that a movement was wrong. Overall, though, it was a solid, entertaining, imaginative book.

[Hellspark has been reprinted by Meisha Merlin.]


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  1. David continues grazing old entries…
    While [Hellspark is] not as cheerful and comfort-book-like as Mirabile, it’s still a good read.
    I’d have said it the other way around: while Mirabile is merely a fixup, and is not as tight, immersive, or well-crafted as Hellspark, it’s a lot of fun anyway.
    This may just be a question of which one you run across first. I read Hellspark at the insistence of the Hypatia recommendation engine at Alexandria Digital Literature, loved it, and ran out and got Mirabile in order to get more of the same, if possible. It wasn’t, but it was still fun. Much more frivolous, and a fixup (which for me is a flaw — I’d rather have the separate stories almost every time), but fun.
    As for the cultural tics… they seemed extreme to me at the time, but I’ve reconsidered. If you take the classical “planets will be colonized by splinter sects” notion that goes back to the Golden Age, and look at the behavior of existing splinter sects or ethnic groups, it doesn’t seem that extreme at all. Try talking to an Italian while immobilizing his/her arms sometime…

  2. David: it’s not just that the tics are extreme, it’s that _every_ problem is solved by the tics, as I recall. But, still, a good book.

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