Janet Kagan:Hellspark

Linguistics is one of my interests, and I'm always glad to see books which treat it as something resembling a science. It's nice when it's treated as speculatively as any other science in SF, but I'll even settle for linguistics at the level we have today, as opposed to its being outright neglected as is more usual.

Janet Kagan dwelt on some linguistical facts briefly in her earlier novel Uhura's Song(which, I might add, transcends most of the other Star Trek books), but she concentrates more heavily on them in Hellspark. It takes place in a universe where humanity has spread onto several different worlds, and these worlds have different cultures and different languages. So far, doesn't sound too abnormal...but Kagan really shows us how different these people are.

The main character, Tocohl Susumo, is a Hellspark, a race who delight in linguistic complexity, their artificial language incorporating any and all known linguistic forms. Since many scientific expeditions involve members of different races, someone who can speak all the different languages can be a boon, even with the existence of GalLing', another artificial language which, in contrast with Hellspark, is the lowest common denominator of human languages. As Kagan makes eminently clear, the unconscious elements of proxemics and kinesics(distances and body language), to say nothing of other cultural differences, make the problem more than merely being able to speak to one another.

Tocohl, together with Tinling Alfvaen, a failed serendipitist(someone with a possible psychic ability to enhance "luck", a la Niven's Teela Brown)and her ship's AI, Margaret, Lord Lynn(a.k.a. Maggy), goes to the planet of Lassti, where a survey team that has been attempting to determine whether the sprookjes, a native species, are sentient has recently lost one of its members to murder.

There are many interesting characters(layli- calulan and Buntec among them), but Maggy steals the book. Through the course of the story, she undergoes a learning process similar to that of Heinlein's Mycroft Holmes, and is extremely charming in the process. She spends most of the book in the form of an arachne, a small spider-like robot, and few of the colonists guess that there isn't a human guiding it...

Between Maggy, the murder of Oloitokitok, and the attempt to prove the sprookjes sentient, Kagan has plenty to keep the novel moving. The villain(s), once found, prove to be somewhat two-dimensional, as in early Tepper, but this is a minor point, and this book shows, I hope, that Janet Kagan's career is headed in a similarly stellar direction.

%A Kagan, Janet
%T Hellspark
%I Tor
%C New York
%D July 1988
%G ISBN 0-812-54275-4
%P 407 pp.
%O Paperback, US$3.95, Can$4.95

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com