Thu
Oct 28 2010 1:50pm

Alien Proxemics: Janet Kagan’s Hellspark

Hellspark by Janet KaganHellspark (1988) is definitely in the anthropological tradition of science fiction. It’s the far future, and humanity is spread through a sphere of stars and habitable planets. It’s sufficiently far in the future that the settled planets have their own cultures and languages that owe very little if anything to their Earth origins. A team of anthropologists from many worlds is sent to a newly discovered world. They are in disagreement about the sentience of the native species when one of them dies unexpectedly in a storm. Another sends for help, and help comes in the form of Tocohl Susumo, a Hellspark linguist, along with her computer, Maggy. They ask Tocohl to judge, and she agrees—but she’s not a judge. although many Hellsparks are.

Now you know when you read a book like this from Little Fuzzy on that the locals will turn out to be sentient, or you wouldn’t have a story. What you read this kind of book for is the anthropology—not just the aliens, but the different cultures of the different humans. There’s a new planet where plants use electricity in the way our plants use sunlight. There’s a human culture where feet are obscene. And a language is more than the words you use to speak it—you have to learn to dance a language.

There are no spoilers in this post.

Hellspark isn’t a very deep book, but it’s a deeply enjoyable book. The worst thing about it is that the first contact team should have been able to work things out for themselves without needing Tocohl. The best thing is that the languages, the cultures and the worlds they imply are loads of fun. This is a brightly coloured adventure, complete with villain. What makes it more than that is Maggy, the computer who is becoming a person.

1988 is the latest date I can think of where science fiction includes a computer who is becoming a person. There are lots earlier examples: Mike, Hal, Harlie, Dora, Minerva, Shalmaneser, Jane, etc. Maggy may be the very last of them—because after 1988 we really had computers, and it became much harder to imagine them developing into people, though I can all too easily imagine Microsoft Word refusing to open the Pod Bay doors for me. There are plenty of computers in science fiction written after 1988, but the computer breaking through to self-awareness is less likely to be a plot element—beyond that, it’s much less likely for them to be a character. Maggy is a character—she’s got the charm of a hyperlexic alien child, and she’s one of the things that makes Hellspark worth coming back to. (I’m also charmed that while they have computers on the edge of humanity, they make notes on scratch paper.)

The other thing is of course that there are all these odd cultures, and people who belong to them, and the sprookjes. The definition of sentience is a little more complex than Piper’s “talks and builds a fire.” It’s “talks and has artifacts and art.” (There are beings in this universe with art and language and no artifacts—dolphins and whales.) The way in which the sprookjes have these things is fascinating, and the way in which Maggy develops them before our eyes is even better. Then there’s Tocohl, moving chameleon-like between cultures and languages and laughing.

This isn’t a great classic or a book everyone should have read. It’s a solid well-written fun read firmly in the tradition of a lot of science fiction that had gone before it. It’s a book a lot of people love, even though it’s out of print and hard to find. If you happen to have missed it, pick it up when you get the chance.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

22 comments
ElizabethN
1. ElizabethN
Hellspark and Mirabile are two of my favorite re-reads, so much so that my copies are falling apart. The only sad aspect of reading these books is realizing that Janet Kagan is no longer around to write more.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
This also has a good courtroom scene, in addition to the cool language neepery (I was delighted to discover that Earth languages exist in which one must specify grammatically the source of one's knowledge for a statement, for instance).  A lot of fun.
Christopher Davis
3. ckd
This is also one of my favorite comfort re-reads. Tocohl has several of the signs of a Mary Sue (and Hellspark itself seems like Mary-Sue-Planet), but Kagan makes it work beautifully nonetheless. Hellspark and Mirabile are two books that really make me wish that I could convert my paper books to e-books (for my own use) as easily as I turned my CD collection into a bunch of files on an iPod; e-books are one of my favorite ways to re-read, and that way I'd always have them handy when I was in the mood for another visit to Kagan's worlds.
ElizabethN
4. hapax
"1988 is the latest date I can think of where science fiction includes a computer who is becoming a person"

we-e-l-l-l...

Depending on your definition of "Science Fiction", Donna Andrew's Turing Hopper mystery series (2002-5) revolved primarily about that premise.
ElizabethN
5. Henry Farrell
You say: "1988 is the latest date I can think of where science fiction includes a computer who is becoming a person. There are lots earlier examples: Mike, Hal, Harlie, Dora, Minerva, Shalmaneser, Jane, etc. Maggy may be the very last of them—because after 1988 we really had computers, and it became much harder to imagine them developing into people, though I can all too easily imagine Microsoft Word refusing to open the Pod Bay doors for me."

Greg Bear, Queen of Angels (1990) is a counter-example. And you could also maybe count the sequel, Slant (1997) in there too.
Tony Zbaraschuk
6. tonyz
It's a very fun book, this one. I liked Mirabile better, even if it is a fixup, but I'm glad I still have my copy of this floating around.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Henry: Queen of Angels yes. That's still right on the edge of when computers were becoming everyday real things. Slant as I remember it plays down the computer-as-person thing., though it's been a while.

I also thought of Palwick's Shelter, after I wrote the post, which completely undermines this hypothesis.
Ruthanna Emrys
8. R.Emrys
I love this book, and it was also my introduction to proxemics and kinesics. I'll admit that it simplifies a bit--every culture seems to have one central metaphor or taboo that it centers around--but in addition to being a wonderful story it's a great way to get a feel for those concepts. It actively shaped the way I interact with people, because it made me think about body language much more consciously--and therefore has kept me out of fights with several people who just happened to have different proxemics than I did.
David Goldfarb
9. David_Goldfarb
I haven't read it, but I gather Rob Sawyer's novel (Hugo-nominated) WWW: Wake uses this premise, only for the network rather than one single computer. Still, I think it counts.
Ruthanna Emrys
10. R.Emrys
Also, I seem to have filed "art, artifacts and language" as a sensible and inevitable rubric for sapience--with the book's caveat that they can overlap, and a poem is proof of all three. Modern cognitive science is pretty clear on the non-distinction between physical and psychological tools.
ElizabethN
11. Cavitation
Yes, I enjoyed this book greatly, and agree with the review completely. While aliens who turn out to be sapient (or should that be sentient?) appear in stories quite often, I can only think of one story where a human-like alien species, isn't sapient - Lloyd Biggle Jr's "The World Menders". His 'Cultural Survey' short series is a favorite of mine too, and he handles the concept of sapience in a very interesting manner.

Can anyone think of another novel where human-form aliens turn out just to be animals?
Lianne Burwell
12. LKBurwell
Janet Kagan is a writer who was taken from us far too early. I loved her three books (Mirabile, Hellspark, and Uhura's Song -- yes, Star Trek).

Over the years I've bought multiple copies of all of them, because they are on my list of 'too sick to want anything but a comfort read' books.
ElizabethN
13. Henry Farrell
> I also thought of Palwick's Shelter, after I wrote the post, which completely undermines this hypothesis.

But then, I suppose that any generalization like this is probably going to be falsified. What would be interesting (if someone had improbable oodles of free time or graduate students on their hands) would be to do something like what Farah Mendlesohn did for children's SF, and code all the novels they could get their hands on to see if there was a spike and decline in the number of novels with computers becoming human around about the right periods of time.
Michael Burke
14. Ludon
"...because after 1988 we really had computers, and it became much harder to imagine them developing into people, though I can all too easily imagine Microsoft Word refusing to open the Pod Bay doors for me."

While I can't see our current desktop computers becoming living entities, I have to say that there are ghosts in the machines. After spending a day reformatting and reloading everything on this computer I find myself once again having to get to know a new personality. I do this once a year and each time I have noticed differences in the thing's behavior.

Didn't robots and androids replace computers in this character role by the late 80s?

I can't comment of this book as I've not read it yet. I'll have to see if I can find a copy.
Filip Belic
15. fbelic
What about sentient computers from Sunstorm, by Arthur C. Clarke and Steven Baxter, from 2005? I read it only once, few years ago, but I think they developed personality on their own and not by design.
ElizabethN
16. James Davis Nicoll
Now you know when you read a book like this from Little Fuzzy on that the locals will turn out to be sentient, or you wouldn’t have a story.

Paul McAuley's Secret Harmonies AKA Of the Fall manages to remain somewhat ambivalent about whether Elysium is home to an indigenous intelligent species or not. There are reasons to regard the candidate species that way and reasons not to.
ElizabethN
17. Matt McIrvin
Post-1990 the trope didn't go away, it merged into the whole corpus of Singularity-fiction ideas: the computer becoming an effective god, or humans uploading their minds to a computer world. Since those are even wilder ideas than the computer becoming a person, I'm not sure plausibility was the independent variable.
ElizabethN
18. Matt McIrvin
...Another thing that happened in Queen of Angels was that the locals turned out not to be sentient, and it was the key element in the computer becoming a person! But that was the B-plot.
ElizabethN
19. Matt McIrvin
Robots and androids as characters are actually older than the SF computer, named as such. There was a lot of strange futurism concerning robots in the 1920s and 1930s, at a time when it was completely unclear how their control mechanisms might work; most likely this was a manifestation of anxieties about industrialization and the automation of skills.
ElizabethN
20. Caroline Mullan
Do AI's count as computers? Justina Robson's Silver Screen has AI emerging into consciousness as one of its subjects, and was shortlisted for the 1999 Arthur C Clarke Award.
ElizabethN
21. M. Ellis
I'd like to throw in Sarah Zettel's Fool's War for 'AIs come among us', though to say much more than that would include spoilers. It was published in 1997, so somewhat later than the time period mentioned.

(It also has one of the most positive portrayals I've seen of a muslim woman in Science Fiction.)
ElizabethN
22. Danny Sichel
Geary Gravel nicely inverted the "prove the aliens are sapient" theme in his... oh dear, was it his The Alchemists or The Pathfinders (both from Del Rey in the 80s, third book in the series never emerged because he hit writer's block)? One of those two, anyway (both are fantastic), and the reason would be a terrible spoiler.

And I remember getting an e-mail from Janet Kagan back in the day, in response to my telling her about a Scheveschke-ceiling dream I'd had: apparently those, and the entire culture that they implied, had been inspired by a low-roofed home she and Ricky visited at one point.

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