Friday, June 18, 2021

Book Review: The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper

 


The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper
Paperback, 116 pages
Published November 15th 2020 by Off Limits Press

 Podcast interview scheduled...so keep your eyes peeled.

114 pages...When I closed this book for the last time it was almost impossible to believe that I had read only so few pages. Hailey Piper is a new author for me but she has packed so much of the grand scale of cosmic horror into so few pages is a magic trick. I know that cosmic horror was born in the short form in weird tales but it still impressed me. Even more impressive is to balance building a mythology and balance a very humane story.  

Hailey is an author I discovered when this book was announced, and it was on my radar ever since. The excellent artwork and the concept sold me. Then I followed Hailey on Twitter and found that I enjoyed her takes on many topics. It is a reminder that the more she talked about this book the more reminders I eventually picked it up. Keep talking about your books!

So glad I picked it up. The Worm and His Kings is an excellent book. As my first introduction to Piper's work, I am sold and will now follow her to whatever books she writes. There is a reason not everyone can write good cosmic horror. There is a certain elegant style of prose that really makes the best of the genre work. Piper's style is rich, vivid, and powerful. The tone reminds me of early Clive Barker in execution, Lovecraft in scale, and wholly unique in point of view.

Every page is written with skill, but the pages drip with an emotional intensity that is lost in some cosmic horror. The personal and the galactic collide and that is one wonderful thing about this novelette. Novelette, novella, or short novel I always point out Of Mice and Men was only 100 pages. I got more feels out of these 114 pages than some doorstop eight hundred pagers.

I went in cold and if you trust me, stop reading here and do the same. Light spoilers ahead.

The story itself is about Monique who is homeless on the streets of NYC, one of the few places of shelter she and her partner Donna had found a home in a tunnel they call the freedom tunnel. I took that to mean that there is a certain amount of freedom in choosing to live a life off the grid, I also liked that about this book the characters are relatable even if they have a certain diversity, you don't find as typical protagonists, LBGTQ, homeless main characters are very well written and refreshingly real. Monique is really our point of view character. The narrative benefits from staying close to her at all times. Not first-person but the book never switches perspective.

The cross of the personal and mythology shines in the darkness. Moments like this one…

“She’s part of the nothing now.” Hot tears flooded Monique’s cheeks. She tried to swallow the burning lump in her throat. “We fed her to the empty place.”
“No, No Lady smiled wide and shook her head. “Most of the universe is empty. We feel stretches of the worm, and she’s with him now, and full and infinatellsetsfree-”
Her words smashed together and thinned like Phoebe across time, becoming nothing.”


Monique is a transgender character. I thought about not mentioning this in the review. It shouldn’t matter but ultimately, I don’t think this will spoil the experience and I want to highlight the strength that this inclusion brings to the story. In the late 90s, I had a close friend and roommate transition and watched him deal with gender.  I know still, I can not understand so Monique’s experience in the book as someone with gender dysmorphia and no means as a homeless person leads to some heartbreaking moments. So valuable, and that is something, that is not a word that many horror novels can claim. It is that realistic terror mixing with the massive scale of the Worm that made the horror FEEL like something.

Outsiders of all kinds desire that the world change and the Worm is a monster that feeds on that desire. Long-time readers of my reviews know the key to a story in my opinion…parallels and reversals.

“…The wounds of this world will be unmade so says the King.”
“Scars never go away,” Monique said.
“They will when the worm remakes the world. The worm changes you.”


Later on the same page, Lady ponders. “The Worm changes everyone. I wonder what you will become.”

Is there anything more cosmic in horror when a monster knows you down to the deepest fabric of your heart? A monster that knows what you desire in your core and want more than anything. The greatest scariest moments in the genre of horror can only be achieved if the storyteller creates characters we care about and monsters who threatened them. The Worm is Monique’s fear made real.  

“And here, in the darkest place, Monique found monsters.
Maybe if her parents knew how far she’d fallen, they would at last regret having bashed their only child.
Unlikely. That was her imagination preying on her thoughts with something more painful than monsters in the dark-The illusion that her parents could accept her.”


Goddamn. Amazing stuff, the best thing I have read so far this year. Some of the best modern to come out of the small press in a long damn time.


 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Book Review: Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer

 


 


Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer

Hardcover, 351 pages

Published April  2021 by MCD

One of the coolest things about the popularity of Jeff Vandermeer is that he built a readership despite writing books as strange as the Southern Reach trilogy and last year’s Dead Astronauts. While Annihilation had the benefit of a movie starring Natalie Portman, it is cool that an author known for thoughtful surreal politically aware eco-science fiction has a following.  That all being said despite the title Hummingbird Salamander is Vandermeer’s most commercial and approachable book yet. Don’t misunderstand me it is plenty weird. As an unofficial vanguard of the new weird his is always an important voice even if the work is more grounded than we are used to.  

One of the things that grounds the book a bit is its ‘Ten seconds in the future’ vibe and the very solidly likely climate disaster expressed in mostly subtle world-building. This was done with a surgical touch, not a hammer.  There are a few paragraphs of exposition but done tastefully enough that they don’t feel like info-dumps. As an ecological alarmist who is also an activist and cli-fi writer myself I course could relate to those moments. Early on in the book, Vandermeer established a near future with multiple hotbed disasters happening everywhere.

I am not sure the average reader with relate to Jane Smith as the main character but I did. Take for example this powerful moment when the mystery at the heart of the novel starts to drive Jane and her husband apart.

“Here a woman could worry about her husband cheating on her while just two hundred miles inland there was a mass exodus of disaster refugees headed north to a Canada that might take them in. A “sanctuary” where aquifers and other water sources were drying up. In the Midwest, privatized security forces were brawling with protestors in the streets of small towns. Disease outbreaks had lead to mass slaughter of affected livestock. While stocks remained bullish about the future even as the window for reversing climate change had shrunk to an unreachable dot.”

I could relate to Jane Smith because for a long time I have struggled with the unshakable awareness of climate insanity and the attempt to live a balanced life despite the feeling of being like a lobster in a pot coming to a slow boil. At the heart of this story is Jane a security expert who has gifted her a key to a storage locker inside is a stuffed hummingbird from a well know radical environmentalist Silvina. The answer to this mystery is not as weird or surreal as I expected, but the journey is compelling.

The hummingbird is a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin. Jane becomes obsessed with Silvina and the mystery, it destroys her peace, her family and sends her around the globe for answers. In many ways, this is like an ecological Bond story. The story works, and has plenty of exciting twists and turns but for me, the book’s most interesting moments were the ways Vandermeer used the framework to discuss ideas.

Hidden between fight scenes and classic spy thriller excitement was an investigation that breaks down the life and death of eco-radical. The story tests the strength of Jane as she is tested by the ecological collapse which challenges her own ethics and sense of right or wrong. Vandermeer slips in moments of beautiful eco-philosophical ideas. Like this well crafted aside on the idea of progress…  

“Progress’:a word to choke on, a word to discard and then pick up again, hurl it in the oven like coal, watch it spurl out its own name in black smoke from the chimney of the hunting lodge. I embrace it, and I repeat it, and yet I know no word I or any other human could use will ever be the right word.”


The dying ecology and the balance of nature is the back drop of the mystery, it is the drive of Silvina’s plan. The world needs to be pushed to these limits to inspire the madness, but I can’t be alone in understanding her position. Certainly, Jane Smith comes to believe playing family is meaningless in this future.

 The story unfolds as Jane is reading Silvina’s journals, the world only growing darker as the killers and threats zero in on her. The timing of this in the narrative is all excellently paced. Bits and pieces of the plan are revealed as the threat becomes more clear. Silvina was an idealist who tried and failed to make a new way in a commune called Unitopia. This highlights the dilemma for many activists. All this work for change and the danger is only greater for my effort.  

“No, in the end, easier to tear it down and start over. The soundless scream of social media these days. The system must be destroyed. It can’t be fixed. Unitopia must have begun to seem like a Band-Aid applied to a gaping chest wound.”


This leads to the darkest moment in the book in my opinion.

"Impossible to tell how fast society was collapsing because history had been riddled through with disinformation, and reality was composed of half-fictions and full-on paranoid conspiracy theories."


We could be and probably are already there at the end.  It would be impossible to live in the internet age, certainly after four years of Trump to not see the danger of misinformation. This is a running subtext in the book, one of the coolest aspects of how the narrative unfolds is that we have two unreliable narrators at work here. Both Jane (if that is her name) and Silvina who has a very clear agenda.  The science on the climate is there and reliable, but who to believe when humans are.

Cli-fi is a genre but it is nothing new science fiction has been addressing the coming ecological disaster almost as early as the 50s. I known I am a broken record promoting the efforts of British sci-fi master John Brunner, but it is impossible for writers working today to speculate about the future without addressing these issues.

From here on out in this review, I am going to get into themes that involve minor spoilers, I don’t think the experience of this book can be ruined. But to sum it up before getting into the ending I would say this is a book worth reading. It is not as surreal as some of Vandermeer’s earlier work but doesn’t go in thinking that this is like Metallica writing a pop song. Every page drips with the author’s intelligence, creativity, compassion, and unique view of the world. That is what makes Vandermeer and this book special.  OK, Spoiler warnings were given…

As for the ending, important things happen that I want to talk about. As a an author of the new weird who wrote one of the greatest modern classics of genre mystery two things happened at the end I was not expecting.

First the end of the world, the progression of this element was darker than I expected but not sure why I didn’t see it coming. I liked that Vandermeer didn’t go overboard on describing or dwelling on this. Jane is mostly out and away from society. There are excellent moments of pure world-building I respected.

“Homeland security still exists?”
“Not by that name. Just their drones. Do you know how many secret drones lacerate the sky these days? They’ll outlast us all. Form their own civilization.”


I think one of the things that separates Hummingbird Salamander from other books in the Vandermeer canon is there is no hiding the mission statement as I saw it. Maybe I misreading this and I have not read or listened to any interviews that Vandermeer has given.  The following statement from the closing pages of the book appears to this reader to be the mission made more clear than I thought we would get.

“I spent some time frozen, arguing with my thoughts.
Derangement or genius? Was it even possible? If I was a right, to create not a deadly pandemic or a biological bomb but a new, true seeing? Let the world in through your pores like a salamander, see all the colors of the flowers only a hummingbird could see.”


Can you see and feel the world like these animals? Can you step outside of your human flesh and connect to the earth and nature a different way? Hummingbird Salamander is asking you to do that, and that is why it is a powerful book.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Book Review: The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell by Brian Evenson

 


 The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell by Brian Evenson
Paperback, 248 pages
Expected publication: August 3rd 2021 by Coffee House Press

 “Yours is a holy calling,” he told her.
“Or a useless one.”
“Perhaps,” he said, ever the optimist. “Perhaps.”  Then he embraced her again and departed. It was, the archivist suddenly realized, the last human contact she was likely to ever have.”


It is hard to argue that a collection made up of stories written for a whole bunch of different sources has a single mission statement. That said Evenson was in a flow it seems with themes he wanted to explore the collection with the subtle title The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell. I could be wrong but there are clear themes and ideas that were near the surface in many of the stories.

The dark surreal underbelly of high literature is kind of the space that Evenson writes in. Weird, bizarro, horror, Science Fiction, cosmic, surrealist all labels that fit stories here and there in the various collections he has released. The first author that lived in that space for me was Clive Barker, while he went on to commercial success, the first couple of years Barker was the undisputed champion of the horror short story.  Over the years Poppy Z. Brite, Thomas Liggotti, Laird Barron, and few others danced the line between beautiful prose and the absolute darkness of weird and scary fiction. There might be better storytellers but in all the reading I have done over the years no one has kicked my ass with beautiful darkness as Evenson has. This should come as no shocker as I have reviewed Brian’s work half a dozen times and interviewed almost as many.

To me at this moment Brian Evenson is hands down the best horror fiction short story author. Hyperbole, sure.

The above passage says much about the themes throughout this book. If a theme runs through this dark and surreal book it is the fear and isolation of environmental and societal collapse. The characters are nameless, just descriptions like Nameless Citizen or Archivist. They are reluctant explorers in a frontier of world-ending banality. The end times and a wrecked world filled with mutated post-humans are every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds, the hell of our creation is the frontier lands these Evenson stories explore.

The reader knows the reality and the state of the planet in one of the later stories The Extrication Evenson talks directly to his reader…

    “Have I been clear enough? The world is dying, is in fact already well on its way to being dead. Were it not, you never would never have wandered in here. You would never have occasion to think, what is this? An unoccupied bunker in which to shelter myself? What luck! And then have fallen into my trap. You instead would have a job in a small town as an accountant, say, or a data specialist.”
 
You as a reader may actually be a person with a standard job, and simple life but when you peer into these worlds and Evenson’s vision in a crafty way you have fallen into a trap. You can’t think straight forward, you have to open up your mind. He is willing to write a story that is just weird like the opener Leg. A story idea that sounds silly, about a captain of a ship whose prosthetic leg is an evil monster…

The rules don’t apply. Take the Devil’s Hand a story based on the trope of a deal with the devil story but done so strangely. A bet over a thumb. When a character points out that he has two thumbs and winning won’t mean much.  

“Then I suppose you will have three thumbs. I’ll attach the third wherever you’d like.”
   
How humans are casually transformed in Evenson's works. Keep in mind he is the dude who wrote a noir mystery novel about an undercover agent in a mutilation cult. Probably my favorite example in this book is when the mutating people and the surreal locations melded.

“And then he would tell me a story about a city that had come from another world, a city that was, in ways he either could not explain or which I could not understand, sentient. The beings in this city had once been like us.”

Evenson is never been a writer who describes deeply. There will never be detailed world-building or chapters that describe the weather or pages about how a tree looked.  The loose world-building and phantom places exist mostly in a foggy shadowy place that just gets hints of the dust or rotten unbreathable air.

 A great example is the Train car in the story Grauer in the Snow.

Described as “Just a place,” and another character says “It is or isn’t.”

Characters Amorphis enough to be human, maybe or probably wrestle with the grandest and most heavy themes of who or what deserves to live. The story Leg has a main character who is the captain of a ship. Boat? Spaceship? Not sure but it didn’t hurt the effect for me. Clouds of doom in Curator push nasty air and rain acid but the exact who or why doesn’t really matter.

“Nameless Citizen!” The voice called. Surely you don’t want our species to die out?”
But I did. Why ever not?  We had destroyed almost everything along with ourselves. It would be better for what little remained if we did die out.
Or they, I should say, since even though I was one of them, I could hardly be said to be so now. The disaster had changed me. I had become a different creature altogether.”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” I said “I might be nameless, but I am not a citizen. Not of your community.”


Nameless Person is a powerful point for me here. Because despite if it was Evenson’s intention it made this character all of us. I mean honestly if the world ends up becoming this ecological nightmare we all are responsible. Nameless Person could be me, you, or anyone else who reads the story. We all could end up asking ourselves if it is worth it to live another day.

That question hangs over this collection like the death cloud in the story Curator.  It is the stories Nameless Citizen and To Breathe the Air that most capture the themes.

“You,” said the other. Have no such constraints. You live outside, not underground. The air cannot hurt you. Truly, you are a wonderous being.”

Nameless Person will not help them.  It is a dark and sad point but, in a collection, names The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell I was not expecting unicorns and rainbows. If you met Brian he is a teacher and a father, a delightfully pleasant fellow. You might think from reading this collection that he is an angry eco-goth and I love that about this book.  

My favorite stories in the collection include Leg, Curator, Breathe the Air, Justle, Nameless Citizen, Elo Havel, and Daylight come. Leg is a strange and impressive for the power it has despite the ridiculous concept. Curator is a dark tale that sets a grim stage while addressing themes. To Breathe the Air might have been my favorite mood in the collection, it is one I wish was a novel. Justle has vivid powerful world-building with the most powerful ending in the collection. Nameless Citizen is filled with powerful moments but for me, the way it speaks to the reader is the power. Elo Havel is the best of the transformed person tales and Daylight Come is a short, weird tale that drips with a vibe.

You should pre-order this collection, but if there are many Evenson collections to read. Songs for the Unraveling of the World and A Collapse of Horses are collections up there as essential like the Books of Blood. Any Corpse might be one of my all-time favorites and now I have to add Breathe the Air.
 



Monday, May 31, 2021

Book Review: Red Widow by Alma Katsu


 

Red Widow by Alma Katsu

 Hardcover, 352 pages
Published March  2021 by G.P. Putnam's Sons

I am overdue to check out the work of Alma Katsu, her horror novels have been on my list for a long time but I started with the spy thriller because it was available at the library at the right time. I was interested because I like novels written by authors who have a unique point of view that they bring to a topic. Something that only they could write.

I read something funny in a negative review of this novel. Random Goodreads reviewer seems unconvinced that the characters in this novel act like spies. While the reviewer has read plenty of spy novels, he seems to know better than the author Alma Katsu what spies act like. I mean she only actually worked in the CIA.  But the dude who read a lifetime of spy novels knows better right?

The Red Widow is not a thriller in the sense of gun battles and murders. This is more in the Le’Carre style spy thriller that seems closer to reality. There is a heavyweight of secrets, betrayals, and psychological suspense that elevates the story. In many ways, this could feel like a workplace drama but the stakes are so high.

The story opens with the poisoning death of a Russian man on an American flight. The death of this man is a mystery, he was a CIA asset but hadn’t appeared to be exposed. The Russian division is suddenly worried that they have a spy working in their midst.

The investigation centers on two characters Lynsey Duncan and the title character Theresa Warner.  Fresh off an embarrassing demotion over a romance with a British agent in Lebanon Lynsey returns to D.C. expecting to be fired. She is surprised when she is given the case of the dead Russian, but when she learns the details it was an asset she recruited when she worked in Moscow.

Theresa works in the CIA even after her husband was killed in Russia trying to extract an agent he recruited. The two women strike up a friendship even as Lynsey has the job to investigate their division of the agency.  I can see why some readers found this to be a very un-thrilling thriller.

I disagree but I understand how that happened, but it cuts to the very theme Katsu is trying to get across. The people in these agencies are human beings. They make sacrifices to do these jobs and they have real fears. Set aside for the moment my personal and political feelings about the CIA I just expressing what the author is trying to say.

Lynsey Duncan is a perfect character to be at the center of this message. Her flaws almost got her fired, and she did it for love so when she finds the traitor at the center of the story it is not as Black and white as she expected.  

Lynsey gets a bit more set-up than is ultimately paid off in this story. On her second page we are given a little bit of info about her, she considers herself more accurate than a polygraph. This tidbit of her skills gets tested in several moments through the novel where she wants desperately to not accept someone is betraying her or the country.

Is she a series character? We will see the reception of Red Widow, as much as I enjoyed this novel, she as a character didn’t knock my socks off. The dynamic between the two leads worked for me. Like any novel, a thriller doesn’t work if you don’t put yourself in the shoes of the characters. The tension is built on dynamics and relationships, more dialogue than gunfire. I can dig that.

My biggest problem is a feeling that the characters got thinned out in editing to get the book down to 340 pages. That is just a guess. There are twists and betrayals for everyone. Overall I liked Red Widow quite a bit, but I am not sure it will work for everyone. I am however sure that I have to read Katsu’s horror novels.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Book Review: The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

 


The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable
by Amitav Ghosh
Hardcover, 196 pages
Published September 2016 by University of Chicago Press

There is no doubt what we are doing to the climate and the thin biosphere we depend on is insane. We can call it short-sighted when being kind. It is unthinkable and insane but it is also crazy to me that this is the point that needs making. The idea that we could endlessly pollute, exploit and destroy our environment with a cannibalistic system of Capitalism without limits is bonkers. There is an argument that nothing is more important of a point to make and thus I was looking forward to reading this.

 In 2021 I have to remind myself that we live in this country in a reality where the President can try to overthrow the election and actual elected officials will tell the public the insurrectionists who were chanting “hang Mike Pence” looked like tourists.  

The title of this book was enough to get my interest because it is a point I have been making for decades.  It is totally sad to me that this needs to a book, or that this is a point that needs to be made at all. Here we are.

I admit I never heard of Amitav Ghosh before. This book got on my radar during a Twitter discussion about Cli-Fi, or Climate Change. Someone asked me if I had read this book, and I put it on hold at the library right away.

Ghosh makes the argument for Cli-fi early in the book.

“[T]he great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities.”

But this put is not a study or look at the various ways science fiction has tackled ecological collapse. There is a great tradition some of my favorites range from Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller or Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless in the last few years to John Brunner’s eco-nightmare masterpiece Stand on Zanzibar in 1969. I would love a book that explores these works and how they express these ideas but Ghosh only really goes into his own related titles. In other words, don’t go into this looking for a study of the genre.

The Great Derangement has plenty of great points and important ideas. I am just not sure it all couldn’t have been said in an essay.


“If whole societies and polities are to adapt then the necessary decisions will need to be made collectively, within political institutions, as happens in wartime or national emergencies. After all, isn’t that what politics, in its most fundamental form, is about? Collective survival and the preservation of the body politic?”

A wartime attitude like the efforts we saw in COVID-19 make more than sense, but you look at how the exploiters and capitalists are reacting to the so-called “Green new deal” which is a perfectly valid response to this crisis. The problem is the suicidal capitalists are happy to line their pockets now no matter what happens to their kids or grandkids. That is why young people like Greta are pissed. They 200%  should be pissed off.

“Among Gandhi’s best-known pronouncements on industrial capitalism are these famous lines written in 1928: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 millions [sic] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

That is happening now in China, and the west are stripping the planet to death. This book is filled with important ideas but in the end, the biggest probably for me is why didn’t need a whole book to make this point.
 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Graphic Novel review: After the Rain by Nnedi Okorafor, John Jennings (Adapted by) David Brame (Illustrations),


 
After the Rain by Nnedi Okorafor, John Jennings (Adapted by) 
David Brame (Illustrations),
Hardcover, 128 pages
Published January 2021 by Harry N. Abrams

 After the Rain was something I jumped on as soon as I saw our library had a copy. I am already a big fan of Nnedi Okorafor, the BINTI trilogy is one I really enjoy. She has become for me an author I will always check out when available. Binti is a great African futurist space opera that is told over three novellas ripe for more exploration.

John Jennings who wrote this adaptation has been a guest on my podcast before to talk about his fantastic take on the Octavia Butler classic Parable of the Sower.  So the idea of Jennings and Nnedi Okorafor together was something I didn't want to miss.

For me, this was a one-sitting read that is equal parts powerful story and beautiful art. It is the story of Chioma a Chicago cop who returns to Nigeria to visit her family and connect with her Grandmother. Once there the spiritual nature of the place brings to the surface some of the these she is haunted by.

The tone is set by massive rains that surprise everyone during the dry season. This strange event is a catalyst that results in ghosts, spirits, and tortured memories. I have not read the original short story but Jennings and Brame breathe a powerful life into this tale.

Really cool ghost story with tons of African vibes and amazing art. Beyond the cool art and ghost story are deep themes of redemption, guilt, and cultural identity. Heavy stuff but all woven into the story.  Big thumbs up.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Book Review: Hella by David Gerrold


 
Hella by David Gerrold
Hardcover, 440 pages
Published June 16th 2020 by DAW

 Sometimes very big elaborate novels start with a simple or basic story prompt that is hard to believe was the seed of a very, very different finished product. It seems to me that is what happened here with Hella, it seems it started life as a desire to write about Dinosaurs. There are only a few ways to do that in hard sci-fi.  Your options are time travel or invent a world, and a hard sci-fi take on a colony world has been done before but Gerrold brings an experience and a sharp science-fictional focus that makes this a fun trip.

Hella as a title is funny but in the context of this very well-thought-out colony world, it makes hella sense. This is the story of a human colony on a world that is what Texas likes to think it is – a place where everything is bigger. Trees a mile tall, roaming dinosaurs everywhere, huge animals, mountains, and a gravity unlike ours, a year longer than one on earth, seasons that last a greater amount of time. Gerrold uses lots of subtle and smart world-building to make it feel real. It comes with an appendix that gives a hint of how much deeper Gerrold has thought about this even beyond what we see on the page.

One of the major themes of this novel is laid out on page 209 when two characters talk about watching “old” (modern to us) Science Fiction movies.

“When I was little, Jamie and I used to watch movies every Seven-day, almost all morning long. Sometimes we would have friends over. We liked old movies best because we would make it a contest to see who could find the most mistakes. The obvious one was the “Earth-like planet.” You don’t get points for that one, it was too obvious. Jamie liked to say, “There are no Earth-like planets. There are only lazy writers.”

This exchange is David Gerrold on the nose telling the reader the mission statement. He might as well underline it or typed it in BOLD letters. While it might be a little bit of a round peg being forced into a square hole, I like that he came out and said it. It is a little thing however if I an editor working on this book, I might have ended that paragraph at too obvious. The rest is clearly David Gerrold talking not Jamie.

Hella is a first-person narrative and anyone who follows my reviews knows it is my least favorite of the story-telling paths. When it is done well, I forget about it and lose myself in the story. The story is being told by Kyle, and he helps really elevate the novel.   Kyle is an augmented human and at times he comes off as a super-genius, a Spock-like character. The reader paying close attention will notice that Kyle is not neuro-typical, this is welcome in Science Fiction. At the same time, it is not exactly groundbreaking. I have like many others have grown to the conclusion that Spock is on the spectrum. That inclusion could and should be important. I know that is a digression back to Hella.

Kyle is a very relatable character; he is curious and somewhat emotionally unavailable. Gerrold plays with this is very smart and subtle ways throughout the narrative. No matter what else the novel is it is far from the stereotype of idea-driven sci-fi. All those elements are there but the characters are just as strong.  In that sense, I forgot about the POV most of the time because I was involved in the story.

The way the narrative is structured the story starts with a slow build that is focused on world-building if the in’s and outs of what makes Hella interesting is boring to you this might seem slow. Personally, I didn’t need the plot to kick in so soon. Because the fictional and creative alien ecology was gee-whiz enough to keep me turning pages. There are so many neat elements to this part of the story I was totally in.

David Gerrold is not a lazy science fiction writer. The ecology and science of Hella are so detailed and researched. I think Dr.Moya McTier of Exolore (a podcast where they just make-up planets) would be impressed. It is the kind of world you wish you could see on screen.

“Ahead in the distance, scattered clusters of pink-trees waved in the wind. They stuck out of the yellow sea, towering thirty or forty meters high. The pink-trees are very thin, they don’t have low branches, only high ones with broad leaves of orange and red, sometimes shading all the way down to deep purple, sometimes so dark they look black. But their long necks are mostly pink that is why they are called pink-trees.

They aren’t really trees. Even though they are rooted, they’re part animal, and instead of bark they have layers of pale skin, thin as paper.”

The balance of ideas and characters are the greatest strengths of Hella, but Gerrold has also thought about the political and social drama that this colony world would deal with. In the second half, we get murder and conflict. This stuff works but it may come in too late for some readers. I didn’t have this problem. I think Gerrold was right to give us time to learn Hella and Kyle.

This novel has a few LGBTQ themes and what excites me about that is David Gerrold while being out for decades is a part of the science fiction old guard. There is an excellent movement towards radical and unique voices in the genre so none of this is shocking or Hella-shattering. That said it has extra meaning coming from a veteran of the scene who has been around long enough to have invented Tribbles.   

Characters in Hella can and do change genders whenever they want to and, in this future, and this planet it is delightfully just a thing. I think the differences are more biological than any kind of assigned gender roles. Consider this from page 89…

“Mom is old-fashioned about babies. Maybe it’s because she was born male, but changed so she could experience her own pregnancy with Jamie, and then with me. I asked her why she never changed back and she said she was having more fun this way, she said I should make up my own mind…”

There are some really forward-looking ideas here about gender., Sci-fi has been dealing with this for decades most famously in Leguin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Progression and time have aged some of Leguin’s finer points to the point she had to ret-con some of the gender politics in later novellas and stories. The generation gap however does rear its head when this passage continues. The problem is this passage is followed up with a binary affirmative statement.

“Mom says it is a good thing for people to know both sides. It makes people happier.”

It seems that on a planet where gender is so fluid that pronouns and s/he titles would be less meaningful than ever. This was one aspect of the novel where I was taken out of the story.  Kyle our main character was born female even uses his gender as a tool to annoy his mother. While this seems like very accurate teenage behavior the gender politics seem clumsy here. It was the one and only thing that I didn’t really enjoy about the novel.

Indeed Fox News TV hosts would hate this novel for normalizing gender non-conformity. If this book was mainstream enough, they would rail against it like they do gender-neutral bathrooms. That said I think the modern sci-fi community would find the novel's binary affirmative language super cringey, I mean I did. I loved the novel overall but it is a thing that really highlights a generation gap.

Hella overall is a fine piece of Science fiction. Gerrold is an author I greatly respect, who is responsible for one the greatest time-travel novels ever and the popular and uncompleted series The War Against the Chtorr. The most impressive thing to me about this novel is the balance. The world-building may seem to dominant the story to some readers but I found the characters and plot to be just as compelling.

This book is for Science fiction readers and I am not sure it will crossover to the mainstream like a Old Man’s War for example. That said if you are taping your foot waiting for more Chtorr stuff take a trip to Hella.  I really enjoyed the experience.