There’s this general feeling in the Hella Colony that we’ll never conquer the planet if we hide behind the fences of Summerland Station. So we have to go out ourselves, smell the air and taste the world. We have to feel the dirt between our fingers. If we are ever going to make this planet ours, we have to give up our fear of it and get into a genuinely courageous relationship. That’s what Captain Skyler says.
But that doesn’t mean we have to be foolish about it.
David Gerrold is an accomplished author with undeniable scifi credentials, publishing dozens of scifi novels and writing a handful of episodes of Star Trek (including “The Trouble With Tribbles” in 1967). But when I first saw his new book announced I completely missed the connection to this author who I’ve read before – I was completely taken in by the premise, and only realized whose work I was reading much later.
Encountering new scifi from an acclaimed author is always a thrill, but Hella proves that Gerrold has always understood what makes scifi (and Star Trek) so great: fantastic scifi stories and real-world explorations of what it means to be human go hand-in-hand.
On Hella, scientists, explorers, and refugee settlers are trying (and succeeding) to survive on a hostile world full of hella big threats. Due to Hella’s low gravity and high oxygen saturation, everything on Hella grows to enormous proportions, but the truly epic fauna is only the beginning of what troubles the colonies of Hella – and our young narrator, Kyle.
Gerrold gets everything right, as far as I’m concerned, and he has not set himself to a simple task. Instantly, you get a taste of how large these animals must be but Gerrold waits to give you a true sense of their enormity until he can get Kyle (and the readers) up close and personal, and he marries the true sense of their size, physics implications of that size, and character-driven narration to create scene after scene of hard-hitting action and emotional moments that instantly suck the reader straight into Hella’s colony.
We headed in closer. I climbed up into an empty turret to get a better view. Even from a half-klick away, the animals were scary-huge. It’s one thing to know that Hella’s lighter gravity and oxygen-rich atmosphere allow for everything to grow to enormous proportions, but until you can see an actual meat mountain in motion, up close and thundering, you can’t really understand what it means.
One of the most obvious tells that this isn’t Gerrold’s first scifi rodeo is his efficient world building. He doesn’t waste time interrupting the narrative to delve into the biology, the history, the motivations, the cast of characters because he doesn’t have to. Gerrold knows exactly how to deliver all of the exposition, the background, the setting, the reader needs to be grounded and immersed with as little work as possible – and the result is gripping.
At the same time, Hella’s pace is reliably varied. One of my favorite techniques he employs is allowing Kyle (the autistic narrator) to focus on the details of specific procedures as a way to hone the reader’s focus and subtly shift the tone to set up a scene, all the while smuggling in a ton of thoughtful world building.
“Thoughtful” kept popping up in my notes while reading Hella, because it’s so clear that Gerrold put careful thought into every aspect of this story. Kyle is a lovingly-written narrator, and after reading this part of me will always love him. Ultimately this story is about Kyle, and the ways in which the unique way he interacts with the world can be viewed or interpreted by others – and the extent to which others’ choices help or hurt him.
Kyle’s syndrome is a major part of the book, not just because it so clearly colors the world we see through Kyle’s eyes but also in the theme of insidious ableism that grows throughout the story. An appreciable number of scifi stories with autistic main characters in the past few years, and if I’m being honest my experience with some of them caused me to hesitate to even read Hella.
Have no fear. Gerrold knows exactly what he’s doing.
Kyle is lovingly written, and his unique experience is an intrinsic part of the story Gerrold tells instead of a new trope to exploit. It’s clear right away that the author is familiar with neurodivergent experiences and writes from an authentic and respectful perspective that neither sensationalizes or plays down Kyle’s experience AND the varying reactions his neurodivergent behaviors and needs inspire in the people around him.
But of course, with Gerrold’s skill and economy of word and technique he’s never just doing one thing. And this story which truly is Kyle’s doesn’t just feature his neurodivergence, it’s shaped by it in intelligent and graceful ways. Gerrold is not shy about using Kyle’s wandering attention and hyper-focus to shape a scene or to play with what information he gives to or withholds from the reader.
I couldn’t help but stop to appreciate (multiple times – seriously) how an author with this level of experience could write such a thoughtful, careful, modern story. Hella isn’t just a pleasure to read, it also redefines how high we can set the bar for stories that are truly inclusive – particularly in science fiction. Gerrold has single-handedly proven that it is not too much to ask to have a truly diverse cast of characters whose differences respectfully and realistically impact the narrative and enhance, rather than compromise, a rich, full, challenging, inspiring book.
But it’s not all cultural commentary and world building and science (and giant dinosaurs?), because Gerrold has a wicked sense of humor and he really has fun in this book. He has obvious fun with the name Hella, from the direct wordplay
But the lesser gravity and the greater oxygen levels make it possible for everything to grow a lot bigger. Hella bigger.
to more elegant exercises of playful language
Jamie says that calling a leviathan big is to stretch the word beyond its breaking point.
He also goes wild with naming conventions in this book, blaming it all on Hella’s first settlers (and creating some absolutely perfect Hellan history at the same time). From places like Ugly Mountain and Bitch Canyon, to a family of carnosaurs lovingly named the Sackville Bagginses, Gerrold plays with irreverence and Earthly cultural references in a way that brightens the narrative and humanizes Hella’s inhabitants. It’s clear that Gerrold had fun with Hella.
The result is an achingly human story that will stick with me for years to come.