Hella: Unusual protagonist, uneven pacing

Hella by David Gerrold science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsHella by David Gerrold science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsHella by David Gerrold

Hella is a harsh planet that was colonized by a few dozen humans about 100 years ago. The gravity of Hella is lower than Earth’s, so all of the plants and animals are enormous. The tilt of the planet makes its climate harsh in the summer and the winter, so the human colony migrates every season. As they migrate, they try not to contaminate the environment (who knows what effect humans will have on it?) and they must be careful of the huge carnivores that also migrate.

Kyle, a neuro-atypical 13 year-old, is our guide to Hella. He is fascinated by the planet, the past and future evolution of its flora and fauna, and the way that humans and their stuff could adversely affect Hella. He loves to learn and he loves to share his knowledge with anyone who will listen. When a ship full of new immigrants arrives in Hella’s orbit earlier than expected, Kyle is asked to produce instructional videos for the newcomers that they’ll show on their ship while they wait for weeks until the colonists are ready for them to land. The new settlers need to understand how dangerous the planet is and how they’ll be expected to help with the large amount of work the colonists must do.

But not everyone appreciates Kyle’s skills and enthusiasm. Kyle has a neural implant that helps him deal with his social deficits, and some of the colony’s leaders think that people who aren’t “normal” should be aborted or sterilized so as not to pass on their genes in their small colony. Another council member, whose daughter got in trouble for harassing Kyle, wants revenge for that and also wants to get control of the colony so he can make himself rich.

The first half of Hella (2020) is quite slow as Kyle explains, in excruciating detail, all about Hella and his colony. Because of Kyle’s voice and vivid descriptions of the activities of the dinosaur-like creatures that inhabit the planet, Hella at first feels like it was written for a middle grade audience, but it wasn’t (unless you want your middle grader to read about teenage boys playing with themselves and each other in the shower). Though this part of Hella sounds like Kyle’s biology essay, I enjoyed listening to Kyle, especially as he explained the ecology and evolutionary pressures of life on Hella (which I found interesting) and the atypical way his brain works, including his hyperfocus on subjects he’s interested in (and his tendency to be teachy about them), his dislike of being touched (even by his own clothes), his literal-mindedness, and his inability to figure out people’s facial expressions and jokes.

I appreciate that David Gerrold chose to feature a protagonist who is neuro-atypical. Though the term is never used, it’s obvious that Kyle has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a very high-functioning form of autism. I can’t say for certain that Gerrold gets the Asperger’s exactly right but, based on my (pleasant) experiences with a few college students with Asperger’s that I’ve taught, it seems right to me. I recall one student in particular who, on the first day of class in a recent semester, raised her hand to answer a question I asked. When I called on her, she got up, went to the whiteboard, and proceeded to give my lecture. After a few minutes I managed to get control back and, after class, she apologized, told me she has Asperger’s, and gave me permission to tell her to be quiet any time. We never had another issue. Kyle reminded me a lot of that student and I found him endearing.

Hella gets much more exciting about halfway through, after the migration when the councilman’s plot is underway. Kyle suffers a couple of devastating losses, gains some new friends (including a love interest), and is in a lot of danger. He and his allies will have to outwit the bad leaders.

Hella fell short for me in a couple of ways. I thought Gerrold was ham-fisted with his anti-capitalistic and anti-Christian messages. They were simplistic, close-minded, and lacked nuance. Another was the way that Gerrold dealt with two characters who changed their sex. Kyle’s mom used to be a man and Kyle was born a girl. But if Gerrold is trying to check the gender diversity box, I don’t think it was successful. His characters’ motivations for changing their sex weren’t because of their gender identity, but rather because, in Kyle’s mom’s case, she wanted to experience pregnancy and, in Kyle’s case, when he was three years old, he wanted to be able to pee standing up, like his brother. Kyle isn’t committed to being a boy and even offers to change back if it will make his love interest happy. Maybe I’m looking for a problem where there isn’t one and, if so, I apologize, but this didn’t feel right to me … But perhaps Gerrold isn’t trying to include gender-diverse characters and is, instead, simply showing us that in his future world, gender just doesn’t matter.

Tantor Audio’s edition of Hella is really good. Travis Baldree does the narration and I thought he did a great job representing a young boy with Asperger’s. This must have been challenging, but I was totally convinced. He made Kyle sound pedantic and humorless, but not at all boring. (Credit for this goes to the author, too, of course.)

Interesting fact: David Gerrold wrote the famous Star Trek episode called “The Trouble With Tribbles” which I loved and watched so many times when I was a kid. It was his first sale.

Published in June 2020. A master of science fiction introduces a world where everything is large and the problems of survival even larger in this exciting new novel. Hella is a planet where everything is oversized — especially the ambitions of the colonists. The trees are mile-high, the dinosaur herds are huge, and the weather is extreme — so extreme, the colonists have to migrate twice a year to escape the blistering heat of summer and the atmosphere-freezing cold of winter. Kyle is a neuro-atypical young man, emotionally challenged, but with an implant that gives him real-time access to the colony’s computer network, making him a very misunderstood savant. When an overburdened starship arrives, he becomes the link between the established colonists and the refugees from a ravaged Earth. The Hella colony is barely self-sufficient. Can it stand the strain of a thousand new arrivals, bringing with them the same kinds of problems they thought they were fleeing? Despite the dangers to himself and his family, Kyle is in the middle of everything — in possession of the most dangerous secret of all. Will he be caught in a growing political conspiracy? Will his reawakened emotions overwhelm his rationality? Or will he be able to use his unique ability to prevent disaster?

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. Even from your description here, I do think Gerrold was trying for a post-gender society. It might be that he had his hands full with world building and narrator voice and gave that detail short shrift.

    I’ll have to read this!

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