Hella by David Gerrold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book has a bit of an odd structure. There's a pivotal moment halfway through that changes its trajectory completely. Up till then, it's a dense, slow-moving exploration of the alien planet the author has created, with meticulous descriptions of the planetary ecology and biology. Now, for the most part, at least to me, this is all pretty interesting; David Gerrold has clearly thought long and hard about his setting and world, and his focus on ecological/biological minutiae is a quirk of long standing (see: The War Against the Chtorr). The way this is presented is also consistent with the main character's methodical, hyperfocused temperament. As a layperson I don't know if the science is plausible or a bunch of hooey, but it certainly sounds reasonable enough, and doesn't have the appearance of handwaving.
However, for while there I wondered if I was reading a book with an actual story or an alien textbook/travelogue: Hella: Pleasures and Perils, by Kyle Martin (the protagonist). This would not have been entirely unreadable, I suppose, but it would have required a bit of slogging. But the aforementioned plot point hits with a literal bang, and the story skids to a frantic halt and takes off in an entirely new direction, morphing into a political thriller.
Your mileage will definitely vary on this. For me, the mashup was a bit awkward, although the story mostly gets past it. However, the second half of the book doesn't really pick up the pace until the final chapters, because now that the conflicting factions have been set in motion, we have to have lengthy conversations about just what political worldviews are fighting each other here. (To be fair, this is due to the main character and narrator, Kyle, who is neurodivergent--he has some kind of "syndrome," perhaps autism, although it's not defined--never having paid attention to or understood politics until his friends and family are caught up in it.) Through Kyle's incomprehension and questioning, we learn what the themes of the book are: capitalism vs. socialism, selfish, greedy individualism vs. collectivism (one of the villains complains, "I came here to be rich, not a workhorse!"), corporations vs. community, and dominating/conquering vs. cooperation/coexistence.
To be sure, the author--and the winning faction--comes down solidly on the latter half of all these opposing formulas. The settlers are attempting to live, and thrive, on a planet that's described thusly:
Hella is nine percent bigger than Earth, but it doesn't have as big an iron-nickel core, so it only has ninety-one percent of Earth's gravity. That means the magnetic field is weaker too, so it can't deflect as much radiation from the primary star. But because the Goldilocks zone is a lot further out, about 250 million klicks, it sort of balances; and that's why Hella has an eighteen-month year. But the lesser gravity and the greater oxygen levels make it possible for everything to grow a lot bigger. Hella bigger. Even people.
This leads to dinosaur-like creatures like walking mountains, with necks and tails longer than football fields, and their carnosaur-like predators with twelve-foot teeth. The Earth vegetables planted in the greenhouses grow tomatoes the size of basketballs. The planet generates winter storms with wind velocities of six hundred kilometers an hour, and winter snowfalls of between ten and thirty meters. And in describing the extreme challenge of living on this planet, I'm thinking: You idiots (meaning the dominance faction) want to conquer it and exploit its resources? Are you kidding me?
This is the central conflict, and the author builds it well, although it's too bad we have to have pages upon pages of conversations to set it up. I would say this book is mainly concerned with its world and its ideas, not so much the plot and characters, although Kyle has a well-developed arc. He's on the young side--five Hella years, not quite fourteen Earth years--so this book has a definite YA feel to it. It's also a bit of an old-fashioned SF adventure story. I liked it, and I don't regret buying it...but I suspect if I had to choose between this book and Vol. 5 of The War Against the Chtorr (David Gerrold's famously unfinished thirty-five-year-old series) the ferocious fuzzy Chtorran worms would have Hella's lumbering leviathans for lunch.
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