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Literature / Hellspark

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Hellspark is a science fiction novel by Janet Kagan.

In a future where many planets' societies mingle in an interstellar confederation, the Hellsparks are a group of Intrepid Merchants and diplomats who pride themselves on being able to speak any language like a native — not just with their mouths, but with their whole bodies, using the correct gestures, observing the proper amount of personal space, and never giving offense (unless they mean to, in which case offense is given with the same precision and accuracy).

Tocohl Susumo, a Hellspark trader regarded even by her peers as possessing a talent for languages, is hired as a consultant to a survey team exploring the newly-discovered planet Flashfever. The survey team has found a birdlike alien species on the planet which might be sapient, but the team can't reach a decision on the question and needs an outside opinion. Tocohl arrives on Flashfever to find that a new development has made the situation even more tangled: a member of the survey team has just been found murdered...

The novel was originally published by Tor in 1988. A new edition was published in 1998 by Meisha Merlin, with a slightly-revised text and a new afterword. The second edition text has also been released in ebook form by Baen.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Alien Kudzu: The garbage plants, that seem to grow all over the human camp, especially its waste facilities, ultimately infesting a living human. The garbage plants turn out to be the seat of sprookje "technology" - they can be genetically engineered to do almost anything, and most of the "infestation" is breaking down things poisonous to the alien wildlife.
  • Body Horror: Several characters react with horror to the garbage plants, that seem to infest and take over Alfvaen's body. Ultimately Defied - the garbage plants were a custom bioweapon made by the sprookjes against Alfvaen's disease; once they complete their task, they die off and leave her intact - and disease free.
  • Common Tongue: The common interstellar language is called GalLing' (presumably from "galactic lingua franca"); it's an artificially-constructed language, and one of its design features is that it only uses phonemes common to all human languages, so that anybody can speak it without difficulty.
  • Culture Clash: A major theme in Hellspark, which is set in an interstellar future with a wide variety of societies, and features in the survey team a community of people who were forced to live together without adequate preparation for their cultural differences.
  • Cure for Cancer: The sprookjes, through their ability to genetically manipulate their environment, can potentially cure any disease, as they demonstrate by providing a cure for Alfvaen's affliction, which had no known cure.
  • The Echoer: A survey team on an alien planet encounter the planet's indigenous humanoids, the Sprookje, who follow the surveyors around and mimic exactly everything they say, but seem either unable or unwilling to say anything for themselves. The driving question of the novel is whether the Sprookje are sapient, which will determine what happens to their planet when the survey is over. It turns out that the Sprookje have their own entirely non-verbal language, and have been carrying on complicated conversations the entire time without any of the surveyors recognising it. Once the protagonist realizes this and starts identifying elements of their language, communication is established and their sapience is quickly put beyond doubt.
  • Emergent Human: Maggy, the AI that runs Tocohl's ship, is in the process of emerging into self-aware sapience. She's intelligent and in possession of many facts, but starts out short on social skills and comprehension of human concepts like "fiction" and "verbal approximation", which she gradually gets the hang of over the course of the novel.
  • Fantastic Naming Convention: Part of the point of the novel is presenting a wide variety of cultures, many of which have their own naming conventions.
    • Jenji: Each person has a public name (eg. swift-Kalat twis Jalakat) which anyone can use, and a "soft name" (swift-Kalat's is "Jaef") which may only be used by their nearest and dearest (though others may know what it is). The "swift-" prefix indicates that swift-Kalat has proven himself as a person who reliably thinks before he speaks and never says anything he doesn't know to be true (which is serious business to the Jenji).
    • Siveyn: The convention is family-name-first; Tinling Alfvaen's personal name is "Alfvaen".
    • Vrnwyn: Have descriptive names like "Edge-of-Dark", but the details are not explored.
    • Yn: The Yn believe in I Know Your True Name magic, so every Yn keeps her name close and is known by a designation, such as layli-layli calulan.note  Even their planet, Y, is known by a designation that is not a name. Y is pronounced "ee", that phoneme being an indicator of power when it appears in a designation; a designation with a doubled section that increases its number of ee sounds, as with "layli-layli", is a sign of rank.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: The variety where FTL travel proceeds in "jumps", which must be calculated beforehand, and a long journey may consist of several jumps between known points instead of one big jump. Doesn't come with Subspace Ansible; the only way for a message to travel faster than light is for it to be physically carried by a ship or an unmanned message drone; there are serious penalties for anyone who impedes the passage of a ship delivering mail.
  • Guile Hero: Tocohl, like everyone in her culture, has been extensively trained in cultural understanding and adaptation, so as to be able to speak to people with not only the right words but also the right gestures, customs, etc. to put them at ease. On top of this, she adds her own ingenuity to become a great diplomat, tricking people into doing the right thing, as when she convinces one team member, who had been offending another team member by going around barefoot, that boots would be fashionable. The resolution of the whole plot turns on trickery.
  • Hidden Villain: Olitokitok was not killed by Flashfever, or by the sprookjes, but by The Mole on the team, Megeve. He turns out to be an Inheritor of God that wanted to sabotage the entire survey so they could take possession of the planet.
  • I Know Your True Name: Yn shamans can do magic on people whose true name they know. They never reveal their own names, instead using a title; the shaman who appears in the novel is called the layli-layli calulan.
  • In Mysterious Ways: Tinling Alfvaen is a "serendipitist", which means she possesses a psychic power that causes things to turn out well when she's involved, sometimes in ways that don't seem so lucky at first. In the recent backstory, she contracted an untreatable disease on an alien planet, which led to the survey organization firing her on the assumption that she'd lost her serendipity. Thus, she's free to devote her time to finding a good linguist when swift-Kalat sends her a message telling her the survey team needs one. In the course of the novel, the sprookjes provide her with a cure for her disease, which apart from being good for her is good for them, being evidence that they have intelligence and advanced technology.
  • Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: A subplot in which Tocohl's AI, Maggy, qualifies as a sapient being. Maggy is a new design of computer featuring extrapolative information-seeking behavior (what would be called "curiosity" in a human), and it's implied that any other computer of the same design could also qualify as a sapient being if given room to develop.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Hellsparks in general, and Tocohl in particular.
  • Lady Land: In Yn society women rule and men are regarded as property; the fact that Oloitokitok has managed to obtain an education and a scientific career says a lot about him (and about his wife, whose declaration that she thinks of him as a sister — ie., a fellow human being worthy of being related to as an equal — is in context powerful and moving).
  • Language of Truth: It is technically possible to lie in Jenji, but the language is structured to provide as much accuracy and detail as possible, and is backed up by cultural and religious penalties for lying. Several times characters refer to speaking in Jenji as synonymous to telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
  • Literal-Minded: Maggy is not good at figurative language to start with; when Tocohl expresses her irritation with a friend by saying she's going to have him for breakfast, Maggy's response is to warn her that cannibalism is illegal.
  • Longevity Treatment: There is one, widely available, although the details are not gone into. When Tocohl makes a joke about getting forgetful in her old age, Maggy reminds her that she's only 103 years old and still in the prime of life. The only character who looks old, white hair and wrinkles, is Judge Darragh, and swift-Kalat notes that this means she must be very old indeed.
  • Ludicrous Precision: One of Maggy's attributes at the beginning of the novel, though she comes to grips with the concept of verbal approximation as the story progresses. Also deconstructed at one point when she gives a 25% probability of a particular outcome and then admits when pressed that all this means is there are four possibilities, which she's assuming are equally probable only because she has no data by which to judge their actual likelihoods; it also turns out that her lack of data misled her and there are considerably more than four possibilities, rendering the entire calculation useless.
  • Master of Your Domain: The Methven discipline involves mental rituals which can be used to calm strong emotion, control pain, or achieve other more esoteric effects; at one point, Tocohl is able to consciously control the blood vessels in her arm to create the appearance of an injury.
  • Nebulous Evil Organisation: The Inheritors of God, occasionally goes so far as to get into Strawman Political territory.
  • Our Nudity Is Different: The Janisetti consider the feet to be a private part; walking around with no shoes on can get a person arrested for public indecency.
  • Planet of Hats: Played with; each of the planetary cultures has a distinctive quirk, but it's not the be-all and end-all of any character's personality.
  • Promotion, Not Punishment: What the judges decide about Tocohl - she was so good as a fake judge they offer to make her a real one in lieu of the usual life imprisonment. She accepts and becomes a full time judge.
  • Pronouncing My Name for You: After one of the survey team members applies the name "sprookje" to the planet's native inhabitants, another member of the team invents a couplet that rhymes "sprookje" with "woke ya" to clarify the pronunciation.
  • Rousseau Was Right
  • Sapient Cetaceans: None appear in the story, but during a discussion of the definition of sapience it's mentioned that dolphins have been recognized as sapient despite not fitting a strict reading of the definition (because they don't create and use physical artifacts).
  • Starfish Robots: The 'arachne' (multi-legged robot drone) that Maggy uses to get around on Flashfever.
  • Suspiciously Specific Tense: A downplayed example, in that nobody picks up on it, but the murderer speaks of Oloitokitok in the past tense at one point after he's disappeared but before the body has been found. He "corrects" himself immediately, and it passes as a case of misspeaking due to the stress Oloitokitok's disappearance has put everyone under; by the time anyone starts suspecting him, the incident has been forgotten.
  • Tools of Sapience: Discussed, in regard to the fact that the sprookjes have never been seen using tools. Tocohl points out that on some planets she's visited, the surveyors themselves might not necessarily be recognised as sapient tool-users because the nature of their tools would not be apparent — for instance, an observer might note that they don't build fires for warmth, not knowing that their clothes have integrated heating elements. This turns out to be the case with the sprookjes, which don't have technology in a classic sense; they make everything they need by genetically engineering their environment. It was that genetic engineering ability that allowed a sprookje to prepare a custom bioweapon against Alfavaen's yeast infection, curing her incurable disease in one stroke.
  • Translation Convention: It's a plot point that the characters speak a variety of languages, and conversations are held in GalLing', Hellspark, Jenji, Sheveschkem, and Yn, among others. For the most part, these are all rendered in English, with the narration noting which language is currently spoken and filling in details lost in translation. The author's note at the front can be read as implying that the entire novel is an English translation of an account written in GalLing'.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After being exposed as the murderer, Timosie Megeve goes on a rant about how the planet's resources are criminally underused and to leave the biological superconductors to a bunch of primitives would be the ultimate crime against humanity.
  • You Watch Too Much X: The running gag about Maggy getting all her information about Siveyn romantic relationships from the category romance novels Alfvaen likes to read, and consequently assuming that Alfvaen's relationship with swift-Kalat will follow the same pattern.