June 2009: Hellspark by Janet Kagan

July 25, 2009 at 10:50 pm (science fiction)

Hellspark (published in 1988) is one of my favorite thinky science fiction novels, and one that I re-read periodically.  It combines a murder mystery with a tricky first contact situation and, most interestingly, a wide array of cultures and languages – and a lot of discussion of them.

Exactly how far into the future this is set is left entirely unstated, but it must be a *long* way, since the various cultures involved are as different as, oh, Mayans and Scandinavians.  Or possibly even more different.

The main character, Tocohol Susumo, is what is known as a Hellspark trader – people who specialize in languages, cultures, diplomacy and trade.  It’s not clear whether they have a home planet, but they do seem to have an affinity for some other cultures.

Anyway, to understate the plot complications a bit, her job is to figure out whether a certain species on the planet Flashfever (which is, incidentally, a fascinating place where a lot of the life forms are electrified) is sentient.  To do so, however, she may have to prove that some of them murdered one of the research team.

I particularly enjoy all the cultural and linguistic stuff.  But to me, another of the most fun parts of the book is the existence (and importance) of professional serendipitists: people who have an inordinate amount of luck, and are paid to hang around and attract positive coincidences, discoveries, etc.  I happen to know someone who could apply for a job like that.

This is not an easy book to get a copy of, but if you see one and you like thinky SF, try to grab it!


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