Alien Proxemics: Janet Kagan’s Hellspark

Hellspark (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.


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