Audiobook Review: Hella by David Gerrold
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tantor Audio (June 16, 2020)
Length: 13 hrs and 19 mins
Narrator: Travis Baldree
It’s no secret that I love colonization sci-fi. There’s just something about the thrill and adventure of settling on an uncharted world that appeals to me, including the challenges of setting up a new governing system, learning about the planet’s environment, and discovering its native (and often dangerous) fauna and flora. I also adore survival stories in general, so naturally I find myself drawn to a book like Hella by David Gerrold which focuses on a group of colonists trying to carve a life for themselves on an unfamiliar world fraught perils and unknowns.
This story, which takes place in the far future on the newly established human colony of Hella, is told through the eyes of Kyle, a very unique protagonist as he was born with a syndrome whose effects are very similar to that of autism. To help him manage his emotions, Kyle was implanted with a chip at a young age connecting him to the colony’s computer network, in theory allowing him to regulate the information load to his brain as well as to improve his communication with his family. But this real-time connection to the system also gave Kyle access to all the data at his fingertips, making him one extremely smart boy. Obsessed with details and facts, he is also something of a walking encyclopedia, becoming a highly sought out person for his knowledge and logical thinking skills, though socially he remains a misunderstood outsider.
As the book opens, Hella is preparing for its next scheduled arrival of colonists. Even though the planet has been settled for more than a hundred years and thousands now call it home, the colony is still woefully unprepared for the influx of newcomers—especially when none of them will be prepared for the hardships that await them. To help the new colonists understand what they’re up against, Kyle has been tasked to make a series of informational videos to send up to the incoming ship, a job he is determined to take deadly seriously. Leaving out none of the dangers or challenges, he proceeds to paint the most realistic picture of life on Hella as he can, but is flummoxed when he discovers that not all of his audience is happy with his portrayal. Some of the colonists, both on Hella and on the ship, are upset that Kyle is making it all look too harsh, while others are glad he’s making it clear that life on Hella is no free lunch. Whatever the case, it’s causing dissent within the colony, and there are certain factions on the planet who will take advantage of this unrest to further their own agenda.
In the end, I finished this novel with mixed feelings. I was reminded of two sci-fi novels that I read in recent years, Outpost by W. Michael Gear and Semiosis by Sue Burke, both of which feature strong themes of colonization and survival, though the former contained more action and space operatic elements while the latter emphasized the science. Hella, bless its heart, tried to do both. As such, I found its lack of a focal point to be one of its main weaknesses, followed by a difficulty to connect with the characters. Regarding the first point, I felt the plot was all over the place. The opening chapters were intriguing enough, as the story begins with Kyle and his mom and brother preparing for their annual migration to Winterland Outpost to escape the cold weather. But once Kyle receives his task of video documenting Hellan life, that interest went downhill fast as readers are inundated with description, both important and trivial. Sparing no detail, Kyle describes everything the incoming colonists need to know, everything from what they will eat to where they will sleep.
To be fair, not all of it was the dry, technical stuff. In fact, I loved the level of world-building Kyle’s perspective provided, especially the descriptions of the planet’s wildlife. Hella’s gravity is much lower that Earth’s, allowing its creatures to grow to gargantuan proportions. Huge dinosaur-like animals roam the its surface, while its trees can reach over a mile high. These were the details that fascinated me in Kyle’s archives, as well as facts about the world’s harsh weather patterns, like the extreme seasonal changes which force the colonists to move back and forth between winter and summer outposts.
Of course, I would have preferred all this to be presented in a more engaging manner, but since we were seeing through Kyle’s eyes, I understood why the delivery had to be more clear-cut, pragmatic, and to the point. While it was good to have a perspective from a “neuro-atypical” and “emotionally challenged” character, and Gerrold certainly went all in with the characterization, having Kyle as our protagonist actually ended up being a double-edged sword because it made the narrative feel a little stiff and bland.
Still, I did mention earlier that there was an action-thriller side to Hella, which came through near the end when the focus of the story shifts towards its political conspiracy plotline. Kyle’s character arc also became more personal. I’ll be honest, this felt like a breath of fresh air and a nice change of pace after all the info dumping and reams of pedantic societal commentary that we had to slog through to reach this point. It’s just a shame that the excitement came a little too late.
All in all, I guess you could say Hella was a somewhat frustrating read. There were probably as many ups as there were downs, but it did end on a high note, which was a plus. I’m also happy that I got to listen to this book in audio, because I have a feeling the print experience would have been a struggle. As the audiobook’s narrator, Travis Baldree’s voicework gave Kyle’s matter-of-fact words some life and personality, at least. Overall, he did a great job and delivered a strong performance.