RogerBW's Blog

Hellspark, Janet Kagan 22 November 2020

1988 SF. The survey team on the planet Lassti is under pressure to declare it free of native sentients so that the colonisers can move in. The "sprookjes" mimic human speech, but that alone is not enough. One of the surveyors dies in what's probably an accident. And then the Hellspark arrives…

Hellsparks are the traders of this multi-world civilisation, but also rather more: where most people only learn their own culture's language (including kinesics such as facial expressions and gestures), Hellsparks learn as many as they can find; so while the common tongue of GalLing' includes only those sounds which everyone finds easy to make, the Hellspark native language tries to include everything. So Tocohl is ideally placed to mediate among this diverse team, who should have had training in what each other would find subconsciously offputting but someone dropped the ball…

So there's a planetary ecology puzzle which might point to a murder mystery and/or to a first contact story. And the trickster who makes everything right by responsibly breaking the rules (a recurrent theme in Kagan's work). And I haven't even got to the good bit yet…

Because Tocohl's ship is run by an "extrapolative computer", Maggy, who may be approaching sentience herself. People who know her would say she's already there. But can she convince the same people who might be judging the planet's own native life, and given some of the downsides is it even worth the attempt?

All right, this is a book that contains many of my favourite SF concepts. Characterisation of the rest of the survey team is thinner than I'd have liked; though we get to know some of them reasonably well it's generally as exemplars of their home culture rather than as individuals. The philosophy of the villain(s) is simplistic. And the names are weird and diverse, including such examples as Tinling Alfvaen, Oloitokitok and swift-Kalat.

But if you always felt that the universal translator, in making things easy for screenwriters, erased a whole swathe of possible stories… well, here's one of them, and it's lovely.

It's a great shame Kagan never found enough popularity to justify more books. There's this, the Star Trek tie-in Uhura's Song (which is pretty good but still has to exist within the constraints of being a Star Trek tie-in), and the short story collection Mirabile.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 08:42pm on 23 November 2020

    The link goes to Kate Elliot's novel "Unconquerable Sun."

    Here's a different link to Amazon:

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:00pm on 23 November 2020

    Thanks - fixed.

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