David Gerrold


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

October 22, 2021

ella is the story of a colony set on an Earth-like world where the gravity is only 90% of 1G, and the percentage of oxygen in the Hella atmosphere is higher than the 21% in Earth's air. The light gravity and abundant oxygen fuel enormous flora and fauna. Trees grow to kilometer heights. Flowers are a meter across. Hella saurians, called leviathans, are bigger even then the largest dinosaurs that once populated Earth. Leviathans are like moving islands on land, entire ecosystems colonize their broad backs as they slowly but inexorably plod across the landscape. Equally huge are the packs of carnosaurs that pursue the leviathans. Hella is a "death world", where humans are constantly at risk. Nevertheless, this is the most promising habitable planet discovered so far, and so the spaceship Cascade has been slowly shuttling back and forth between Earth and Hella, bringing in additional colonists.

The human colony is built behind rings of walls (built from trunks of the enormous trees) but they do have to venture out into this dangerous landscape. Hella rotates on an axis that is tilted 30 degrees from the sun. This results in summers that are unbearably hot and winters so cold that the carbon dioxide can freeze right out of the atmosphere. This forces the colonists to migrate each season between their two established bases: Summerland and Winterland. The migrations are armored convoys of huge "rollagons", which are mostly self-driven, until some dangerous fauna appears.

The story is narrated by Kyle, an autistic teenager (in Earth years, he is only six years old in Hella years). Kyle is tasked with creating videos to explain the next shipload of arriving colonists aboard the Cascade what they are about to face when the join the Hella colony. Using that plot device, Gerrold explains the workings of Hella to the reader. I loved it. Gerrold has really put a lot of thought into how the monstrous Hella ecology would function, and how the human teams would adapt to those challenges. Because the colonists are about to embark on their bi-annual migration, the reader gets a tour of the environment and the dangers involved. What I liked was how careful the humans are - they have contingencies, and scout-drones and heavily armored vehicles. The humans are careful to put up big tent-like sheets of ultra-fine mesh to try to limit the contamination from air-borne particles and creatures. Not only are the humans concerned with getting sick from Hella pathogens, they also worry about spreading Earth diseases into the pristine environment. Throughout the book there are occasional hints about a collapse of Earth's ecosystem, but this is never elaborated. The Earthlings recognize that they are the ultimate invasive species. I liked how careful and cautious the humans are; I enjoyed their meticulous preparations and the steps taken to mitigate risks. I liked the explanations of trying to create soil to grow crops. This may sound like a dull story, but details about growing plants or prioritizing the next improvements in the colony were fascinating reading for me. The first two thirds of the novels is full of Hella description, and I enjoyed it.

And then the final third of the novel occurs. Hella disappears from the narrative, it becomes a tale about politics within the colony. A stereotypical bad-guy, Councilman Layton, wants to set himself up as an authoritarian. The novel degenerates at this point. Kyle and his friends try to figure out how to stop Layton, who clearly wishes to unleash the same destructive, uncontrolled forces that destroyed Earth's ecology. It was disappointing to read. The plot is not suspenseful, the resolution is quit a let-down. The lame politics-driven plot could have taken place anywhere - on the Moon, on a space ship or back or Earth. The wonderful Hella planet that Gerrold has so beautifully constructed is simply ignored, it plays no part in the final third of the story.

Will there be a sequel? The ship Cascade remains in orbit, with 1200 new colonists aboard. Can the human colony absorb all of these newcomers? What was the hinted-at, but never explained, event back on Earth that caused so many colonists to flee on the Cascade? If there was a sequel, I would probably pick it up, but if it is more of this lame political intrigue, then I would return it unfinished.