Big Ideas, Huge Imagination in “Hella” – Chicago Review of Books


Hella, the setting of David Gerrold’s newest novel by the same name, is a world modeled on the simple human amazement at huge things. Hella’s “atlas trees” stretch nearly a kilometer high with branches the size of sequoias, its three rotating moons in the night sky pull the waves ten meters tall, and its inhabitants, massive dinosaur-like creatures, tower higher than human skyscrapers. In short, Hella and its native inhabitants aren’t just big, they are Hella-big.

In this larger-than-life world, a small group of human colonists work hard to survive and create a society better than the one they left behind on Earth. Their story, as much about the planet itself as it is about them, makes up the thoughtful and enjoyable page-turner Hella, a book sure to entrance anyone with an active imagination for distant worlds and giant monsters.

The central protagonist and narrator of Hella is a young man named Kyle, a first-generation immigrant to Hella’s colony. Kyle is a unique narrator in that he was born with a “syndrome” which seems to place him along the autism spectrum, and whose more severe symptoms are treated with a chip that directly connects Kyle’s brain to what he calls “the noise” (a central database resembling the internet).

Because of his syndrome and his family’s connections to prominent figures in the colony, Kyle becomes the unwilling centerpiece of a political battle around several controversial bills. One of the most prominent of these is The Genetic Protection Resolution which would require the genetic modification of any embryos with a predisposition towards syndromes. These bills are part of a larger political battle led by the antagonist Counselor Layton who, along with his family, is attempting to gain authoritarian power over the colony. This conflict quickly escalates when a transport ship laden with new immigrants appears early, telling the colony on Hella it may be the last to ever come from a dying planet Earth.

While Hella’s set up partakes in a long history of science fiction writing about colonies on new planets, the setting, characters, and the society detailed give an imaginative new take on this story. One of the most refreshing aspects of Hella’s world is how the fluidity of gender and sexuality is casually incorporated into the setting of the novel. Characters are raised in queer polyamorous spaces and have easy access to safe sex-changing procedures which they may take advantage of several times throughout their lives. It is amazing to see novels that don’t cast the same rigid and destructive gender binaries into an imagined future.

The writing of Hella is incredibly detailed. In keeping with Kyle’s obsessive personality and unlimited access to information through the noise, there are often long detours into the minutia of Hella’s ecology as well as the colonies society, technology, and infrastructure. These details have moments of beauty, especially in descriptions of Hella’s scenery, but can also drag. I often found myself skipping the seemingly endless paragraphs about the colonist’s trucks and the frequent mechanical problems they experienced.

The most frustrating aspect of these descriptions was that they distracted from what I considered the much more interesting political maneuvering happening beneath the surface, outside of Kyle’s singular focus. Hella felt like a queerer, lighter, and more dinosaur-filled version of Kim Stanly Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and the rise of Counselor Layton was a timely reflection of the current moment and our own autocrats. Luckily, the pace of the novel picks up about halfway through, and as Kyle’s character grows so does his sphere of focus as a narrator.

Ultimately, the strength of the characters and world drive through any lulls in the plot, making Hella a fun and thought-provoking summer read. With an ultimately optimistic view of human nature, this book might be the perfect salve to those struggling with the sadness of the current political moment.

By David Gerrold
Daw Books
Published June 16, 2020


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