Book Review: Hella by David Gerrold

Title: Hella
Author: David Gerrold
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: June 16, 2020
Print length: 448 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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?

Hella is a hella big place. It’s a large planet where, due to lower gravity as compared to Earth, living things grow to crazy huge size. And there are dinosaurs. And they’re HELLA gigantic. Herbivorous leviathans migrate across the plains, slowly stomping over everything in their path, and hungry carnosaurs attack them in groups, feasting for days on the huge carcasses that they manage to bring down.

Hella is not the most hospitable environment for humans, but these few thousand colonists are there to make it home. It’s already been a hundred years since the First Hundred made landfall, and since then, additional migrations of humans have helped the colony to grow and expand.

Caution is the highest priority. Everything is studied and planned for, because it’s crucial that the human population avoid cross-contamination with the Hella natural world. All food is grown within the enclosed colonies, and care is taken never to allow human-produced microbes or plants out into the planet’s own natural environment.

We get to know the world of Hella through main character Kyle, a neuro-atypical teen (roughly 13 years old in Earth years, or 5 years old in Hella years). Kyle is smart and detail-oriented, devoted to his family, but has challenges understanding nuance and reading other people’s emotions, doesn’t like to be touched, and is unable to leave a topic until he’s shared everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) he knows about it. He’s gifted and his talents can benefit the colony, but there are some who view Kyle as a freak and treat him that way.

While the colony seems to function on the principle of communal service toward the greater good, there are those who thirst for power, just like in any human society. When the chief power-hungry representative gets an opportunity to seize control, he takes it.

Hella is an interesting book, although I have some issues with it. At the beginning, the focus is on getting to know the planet and the colony. Kyle goes out on an expedition for the first time, and through his experiences, we get to see the plants, trees, strange creatures, and huge dinosaurs that roam the land.

We’re also introduced to the daily routines, the concept of work that’s at the foundation of this human society, and the myriad factors that go into maintaining safety and self-sufficiency.

We learn more about how human society has changed and evolved over the years since our own time as well. For example, gender is fluid and easily changeable. Kyle’s mother was born biologically male, but changed to female so she could experience pregnancy (which is in itself a fairly unusually choice, as many people prefer to have their babies bottle-grown rather than womb-grown). Kyle himself was born biologically female, but decided to change when his older brother did, largely because he too wanted to be able to pee standing up. Changing doesn’t have to be permanent; later in the book, Kyle has cause to rethink his decision and considers changing again in order to please his boyfriend (which is a frustrating reason to change, but fortunately, his boyfriend sees it that way too.)

By the second half of the book, the emphasis is less on the natural world outside the human habitats and much more on the political maneuvering within the human colony. There’s a conspiracy afoot, and Kyle and his friends may be in the best position to try to stop it. There’s plenty of danger and excitement as they chase through tunnels, hack networks, and try to avoid or defeat the bad guys.

My feelings about Hella are mixed. First off — cool planet! I really liked learning about this world, its dangers and its beauty, and what it takes for humans to adapt and survive there.

But, there’s just so much time spent with Kyle on the details! Granted, this is a piece of who Kyle is, but his need to go down the rabbit hole chasing every detail doesn’t always make for great reading, and I felt that the plot tended to bog down in detours.

At almost 450 pages, this book is longer than it needs to be. I think if 50-75 pages had been trimmed, the pacing might have improved, keeping the plot more on track and letting momentum build. As is, I didn’t truly feel caught up or swept along by the story until the 2nd half, and that’s too bad, as there are elements of a great story here.

As I said, I did really enjoy the (literal) world-building the author accomplishes in introducing us to the human society in this large and frightening world, and explaining how they find ways to improve their resources bit by bit, even while always protecting themselves from the dangers just outside their fences.

I was a bit startled looking at the author’s Goodreads profile when I realized that some of the characters in Hella appear in his earlier works. This made me wonder how much I was missing and whether a familiarity with other books would enhance the reading experience.

This is me being persnickety, but the author’s writing style got on my nerve in places. He has a tendency to throw commas into sentences to connect clauses. Random example:

Outside, the northeast slope was a rumpled landscape, hundreds of layers of lava flows had hardened here.

Just a little pet peeve of mine. Use a period! Separate your sentences! Or, you know, give semicolons a try!

Hella has a conclusion that ties up the major action of the story, but there’s certainly room for more storytelling about the colony, its people, and its politics — plus, it would be fun to get to see what happens next for Kyle, his family, and his friends.

I do recommend Hella, but wished that it was just a little tighter and faster overall. Still, it’s a fun and engaging story set in a really fascinating world, and I’m glad I read it.

A book with the kiddo: Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear

Book Review: Dinosaur  Summer by Greg Bear

dinosaur summerDinosaur Summer takes the 1912 novel The Lost World (by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) as its starting point, imagining a world in which The Lost World is not fiction, but rather a history of a real discovery of dinosaurs living in an isolated world on a South American plateau.

It is 1947 when Dinosaur Summer opens, and the world has pretty much lost interest in the marvels of Conan Doyle’s discoveries. Dinosaurs had become so commonplace in the years since 1912 that all circuses had to have them — but in the post-war years, there just isn’t enough public demand to keep the dinosaur circuses running, and finally, the very last one is about to close for good.

15-year-old Peter Belzoni lives with his father Anthony, who is wild, impetuous, and prone to drinking too much. Anthony decides to bring Peter on the adventure of a lifetime by securing gigs for both of them with National Geographic, to photograph and write about an epic undertaking: the return of the last circus dinosaurs to their original homes on the El Grande plateau. Accompanying the expedition are filmmakers, trainers, and various local guides and authorities — and as the team sets sail and then journeys through the jungles and rivers of South America, the trip becomes more and more dangerous.

I read this book with my 11-year-old son, based on the recommendation of an old friend who is a terrifically well-read sci-fi connoisseur. But note: Dinosaur Summer is not a kids’ book! As far as I can tell, this is adult science fiction — but with an angle that definitely appealed to my kiddo.

We enjoyed the action, the drama, the danger, and the humorous dialogue. In Dinosaur Summer, the lost world of El Grande has evolved on its own, in isolation from the rest of the world. Consequently, the animal species are unique (and fictional, for the most part). The author helpfully includes a “What’s Real, and What’s Not” afterword, and the kiddo and I had a good time looking  up illustrations of similar dinosaur, reptile, and mammalian species. Most memorable (and life-threatening) are the death eagles (yikes), and weirdest are communisaurs, mole-like dinosaurs who live in hives serving a queen.

Dinosaur Summer has drawings throughout by illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi. You can see a few from the book on his website.

A few minor quibbles: The story occasionally bogs down in details about political conflicts between the Venezuelan government, the army, the indigenous tribes, and the oil companies. Likewise, much of the catalyst for the expedition has to do with Hollywood interest, and there are a lot of characters introduced connected to the movie studios, to the point that the action drags a bit as we are introduced to producers, cameramen, studio heads, and more. Frankly, the names become overwhelming at times — although it was amusing to see some real-life Hollywood folks included here as characters in the story. (Most notably, special effects pioneer and movie great Ray Harryhausen is featured prominently as both a member of the expedition and a mentor to Peter, and I can only imagine how much he must have enjoyed the tribute when the book was published.)

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the draggy bits mentioned above wouldn’t have been an issue if I’d just sat and read this book on my own. It’s just that in reading it aloud, the passages and chapters that were so crammed with Hollywood names and political drama just didn’t flow. I will say, however, that this didn’t seem to bother my kiddo in the slightest — I think he just ignored the parts that he didn’t get, and focused on the action… of which there is plenty!

Some of the scenes toward the end are on the gory side for a bed-time story, not that my son seemed to mind. Still, I felt a teeny bit like a bad mother reading to him about dinosaurs chomping and eviscerating right before tucking in his blankets and turning off the light!

All in all, both my son and I were fascinated by Dinosaur Summer, which nicely blends high-stakes adventure with a surprisingly touching story of a boy growing up, figuring out who he is, and developing a more adult relationship with his difficult father. I recommend this book for adults looking for an old-school adventure, as well as for middle school to teen readers who don’t mind having to work a bit for a good story.

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The details:

Title: Dinosaur Summer
Author: Greg Bear
Publisher: Warner Books
Publication date: 1998
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased