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4.41  ·  Rating details ·  801 ratings  ·  111 reviews
Murder, Mystery, and Interstellar Intrigue Hugo Award winner Janet Kagan's Hellspark is now back in print Lassti, a newly discovered planet, is the center of political intrigue. Recently, Oloitokitok, the planet survey team's physicist was found dead. Was he killed? If so, by whom? One of his fellow surveyors? Or by one of the Sprookjes, the birdlike natives of Lassti? Are ...more
Hardcover, Book Club edition, 311 pages
Published 1988 by Tom Doherty Associates
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Average rating 4.41  · 
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 ·  801 ratings  ·  111 reviews

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Jun 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was a smart, complex, strongly characterized far-future science fiction in which diverse human cultures spread across numerous planets. It has nothing to do with Hell or fire, that simply happens to be the name of a culture that is famous for being good at learning others' languages and mores. Our protagonist is from Hellspark and is hired to help determine if a recently discovered avian species is sentient. One of the researchers on the planet has died -- accident or murder?

If there is a
Sep 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an old favorite -- what the hell, 25 years old. I am not okay with that. (Not okay with the author's having died in 2008, either.)

Many people have praised _Hellspark_. I will skip the plot squib and say what I love about this book: the joy. All the characters are having *so much fun* learning and understanding and realizing and connecting and figuring it out. The reader is absolutely in on the game, as well; there's a running stream of little details about people's cultures that you can
4.0 stars. A well-written, original science fiction story that focuses on something that most SF books dealing with multiple races simply gloss over...mainly how both language and cultural differences can make communicating a very difficult proposition. This novel explores the way gestures and words and even the amount of personal space can differ from culture to culture and how these differences can lead to signaifcant challenges. Recommended.

Nominee: Locus Award Best SF Novel.
Deborah Ross
Mar 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Janet Kagan's death in 2008 ended a brilliant but tragically short career. She wrote only three novels, Uhura's Song, Mirabile, and Hellspark. Although published almost a decade and a half ago, Hellspark remains as rich in fresh ideas and wonderful characters as when the ink was still wet on the pages. The story begins as a murder mystery, a pilot versed in languages enlisted to help solve the death of a member of a multi-cultural survey mission. As an outsider, Tocohl Susumo brings a new perspe ...more
Apr 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
The first time I opened this book I hit the names "swift-Kalat" and "Oloitokitok," closed my eyes, closed the book, and sighed. The book went on a shelf. Several years later, wanting to read something, I picked it up and tried again. Having matured past the "you've gotta entertain me" reading stage, I read deeper and longer, feeling the texture offered by the pen of Kagan as she opened doors to questions. I found that I was entertained, the story has a "feel good" resolution, but I was also chal ...more
I really enjoyed this. The information about proxemics (how comfortable people are at what distance between each other) and kinesics (the study of nonverbal communication by how people move their hands and bodies) was fascinating.
Laura (Kyahgirl)
Jan 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: sci-fi-fantasy
Kind of an old style sci-fi, reminiscent of John Varley. I enjoyed the characters and plot.
One of my very favorite books. I've read it many times.

The survey team on a recently discovered planet is in trouble, in several ways. Many of them are at odds with each other, the planet is dangerous, they cannot prove the sentience of an obviously intelligent native race because they can't determine if they have language, and now one of the survey team has been murdered. Tocohl Susumo is sent to the planet to assist the team. She is a Hellspark, one of a race of polyglot traders. Understanding
Jul 01, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: sociology, sci-fi
Finally, an author who pays proper attention to communication! Unlike Star Trek or any of the other sf that uses a "universal translator," Hellspark makes great use of the importance of body language, personal space, and other unmentionable things that no one ever thinks about when conversing with aliens. A great deal of this novel is taken up with emphasizing the differences between various cultures, while at the same time asking, "so with all these differences...what exactly defines us as sent ...more
Feb 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: brain-shipz, 2019
A very good book, though it took me a bit, at the beginning, to wrap my mind around the multiple characters/cultures. Once I had, I truly enjoyed the story.
May 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Hellspark is a very intelligent hard-sf novel about contact with alien races and establishing communication and relations. Science fiction about scientists with good science, what an idea! It's very well-written and plotted, with characters who portray their joy in learning and exploring very convincingly. The mystery aspect takes a back seat to scientific extrapolation, and it's an enlightening, challenging, and thought-provoking work.
Julie Davis
Jun 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
After the simplicity of Kagan's novel Mirabile, I didn't expect to get dropped into the middle of a rich, complex sci-fi world. How delightful to find that it is so much more than I expected!

The planet itself is interesting because it's got an overabundance of electricity ... plants, bugs, electrical storms out the wazoo. The sprookje natives, which I kept thinking of as huge birds thanks to their feathers, though they are clearly humanoid, are a mystery in themselves. It seems as if they should
Peter Tillman
Jun 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Moved up on the re-read list. Here's my pal Susan Stepney's take:
"This is a wonderful story, packed with detection, language and proxemics, human and non-human sapience, cultural taboos, alien biology, art, electric storms, and morality: deep problems explored with a light touch."
I want to like this book. Cultural misunderstandings are one of my favorite things in fiction. But all of these misunderstandings are too easily resolved, the "mystery" too obvious, the intrigue non-existent, the protagonist too hyper-competent. Some delightful individual scenes aren't enough to make up for a novel with no tension or growth.
Jul 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who loves a GOOD book
I've loved this book a long time, and have re-read it many times. It stays fresh for me. It's a very good first contact science fiction mystery. The characters are well drawn and you care about them. It is also an interesting examination of how culture shapes language, and language shapes thought. The book is one of the best illustrations I've ever seen that body language is as much a part of one's language as words and the the serious miscommunication that can result from violating another cult ...more
Maria V. Snyder
Oct 26, 2014 rated it liked it
This is a science fiction book written in the 80s and, at one point in my life, I would have loved it. The story had aliens from different worlds and a main protagonist who could speak all these different languages and knew all the various customs of the aliens. They're on a world trying to determine if these sprookjes are sentient and they send the main protagonist to help with the determination. Now I liked the main character and her AI computer, Maggie - they were both confident and competent ...more
Jun 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 5-star-reads
Really original speculative fiction stories take a little longer to get into because the universe you find yourself doesn't have cliches to orient you quickly. This story is totally worth sticking it out until you get your bearings!

The one cliche it does have is the idea that before humans open a new planet for development they ought to send in a team to make sure there isn't an intelligent species already there. What happens if the team finds a race some members are sure must be intelligent but
Jamie Collins
This is one of only two novels written by the late Janet Kagan, who is probably best known for writing one of the better Star Trek novels, Uhura's Song. She was a Hugo-winning author of short stories, the most popular of which were her "Mama Jason" stories, published in Asimov's sci-fi magazine and gathered in a collection called Mirabile.

Hellspark feels dated, somehow, even though the only thing I can point to as an anachronism is the use of the word "tape" for audio and video recordings. The s
Lilia Ford
Jun 20, 2016 rated it really liked it

Complex and lovely, and fully earning its "strong female protagonist" label--with some great female friendships thrown in there as well. The plot reminds me of favorite Star Trek themes, the challenges of communicating with a profoundly different form of intelligence. The approach is refreshing and ethical, without the usual blowhard militarism or pontificating that you see so often in sci-fi. All this in a book published in 1988--it holds up extraordinarily well, far better than any other sc
This book is a joy. Totally worth reading for its thought-provoking aspects re: the history we bring with us, non-verbal communication, the nature of sentience, and also worth reading just because it is a delight. Tons of cultures! Robot-spiders! Teen graffiti artist birds! Death curses! Murder!

I wish I wish I wish I wish I wish we had seven thousand other books in this world.
Dec 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: f, sci-fi, own-it
This is why you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover (or title :) ) Excellent
Dec 30, 2017 marked it as library-to-read
Shelves: mobius
Yeah, I don't like intrigue or mystery. But the aliens are supposed to be really well-done in this. And look at the average rating!
Nov 10, 2015 rated it liked it
A multi-cultural science team is studying a newly-discovered planet teem with life... some of which, they think might be intelligent. But they're not sure, because they've been unable to establish any meaningful communication. After one of the survey team is killed, possibly by the natives, the team's leader is ready to declare them non-sentient and the planet ripe for exploration. But other members of the team disagree, and a human trader, a Hellspark, is called upon to investigate the issue an ...more
Jul 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: psych, geekery, scifi
This book! A lesson to me: don't judge books prematurely.
The back/inside cover of these reads like the worst stereotype of a sci-fi novel - lots of names and weird words that are from "other languages," like somebody is trying to hard.

"As he strolled among the Kenthellians, through the wide parndamets along the River Elinionenin, thrimbening his tometoria and his Almagister's scrollix, he though to himself, "Wow, it is sure convenient there's a glossary for made-up fantasy words on page 1048."
James Swenson
Aug 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an excellent piece of hard science fiction. The plot is fine -- unmasking conspiracy and solving mysteries -- but the book is really about conflict between cultures, and the extreme effort necessary even among people of good will to avoid misunderstanding and unnecessary hostility.

A couple of warnings are appropriate: in the first 30 pages, I had to really slow down and concentrate. It's necessary to absorb a fair amount of invented vocabulary, and a variety of unfamiliar names, and the
Matthew Galloway
Jan 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
As a librarian (and a book store addict) I have access to many great books. This one is one of the best I've read in a long time. I've rarely come across a book so fascinating -- the cultures, the aliens, the exploration of communication was all just perfect. I loved the characters (Maggie!) and the mystery and the ecology and... there are just so many different concepts and clever ideas and it should be far too many elements, but it works amazingly well. The book also does one of my favorite th ...more
Jun 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent first contact story with a strong anthropolical / linguistic bent. Nearly perfect, but I felt the writing sagged slightly in the second half of the book, and some of the characters started to feel a little more superficial. Still, this book is a real delight: thought-provoking and witty, with many satisfying turns.
Emily Crow
DNF at 24%. I might go back to this one later. I kept struggling to get into it and finding myself stymied by the plethora of odd names and discussions about alien customs. I might enjoy it more when I'm in a different mood, especially as there are bird-like aliens on a distant planet and how can that not be a good thing?
Nov 21, 2012 rated it it was ok
The world building was very intricately done and there were some fascinating concepts, but for the most part the writing style was just too boring for me. I want to dip back into this, but not anytime soon.
I kept on seeing recommendations for this book following Baen’s re-release of this book, and I’m glad I picked it up. Interesting sociological SF, with a focus on language. It’s a quick read but was totally absorbing (I could have done without the POV switches though).
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Space Opera Fans : Sept 2018 THEMED Hellspark by Kagan 15 43 Aug 25, 2019 05:41PM  

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“All in all, Maggy concluded, she had done right. Tocohol knew that she could not see the ship from here, so Maggy had not lied to a friend. She had told a pleasing story, and she was very proud of her new ability.” 0 likes
“The crested sprookje let her hand drop. From its own vibrantly colored yoke it tugged a feather and gave it to her. Feathers are good, it told her silently, try them.” 0 likes
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