A Tunnel in the Sky

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by David Gerrold

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 16, 2020

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There are several different angles from which I could approach this, but at least for the start I decided on my typical type of review, a bit of synopsis, a few opinions on style and what I think was the author's intent. I may add later comments. So first, David Gerrold's Hella will be released in one month, June 16. I had already pre-ordered it, then Net Galley offered an advanced look. I requested it, they approved an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review. It is a continuation of his Dingilliad trilogy from the early 2000s. As has happened many times lately, I wish I'd had time to re-read those books before this one, but that will have to wait for now. I had read a previous unfinished draft of this novel, which went through several revisions over the years, and I re-read it, alternating sections of it with comparable sections of the new ARC. It is so good, the repetition did not lessen its impact, and even though I probably won't have the time, I'd like to go through it again as soon as I get the hardcover. If I recall correctly, Gerrold's original idea was for the youngest Dingillian, Bobby (aka Stinky), to be the main protagonist. In this version he is mentioned but doesn't make an appearance, and the trilogy's first-person narrator, middle brother Charles (aka Chigger) is but a minor character. They have come to Hella as colonists, to settlements that were established more than 100 years earlier.

This and the earlier trilogy are young adult titles, but they tackle some heady themes. The first-person narrator here is Kyle Martin, who is approaching his fifth birthday, but that is in Hellan years. Hella is farther from its sun, larger than Earth in size, but since it's core and mantle are not as rich in iron, nickel and other heavy metals, it has a gravity approximately 90% of Earth's. Its day is 36 Earth hours long, its year is 18 months. In Earth years Kyle is about 13, his Passage ceremony just around the corner. That is similar to other coming-of-age rituals, such as the bar mitzvah, which will signal Kyle's passage into adulthood. But he is already a contributor to the settlement, he has assigned tasks along with his education. Everyone on Hella works, at least those who are able. Even the old and infirm contribute through their knowledge and expertise. One thing Gerrold has frequently said is that 90% of what he does is research. If he doesn't know something he searches for information, and I am sure he knows several people to whom he poses questions about scientific matters. I don't know if how he describes Hella would be the case, and for the sake of the story it doesn't really matter, but the idea is the lighter gravity, and the atmosphere's higher oxygen content, enables indigenous plants and animals to grow much larger than they would on Earth. In other words, everything is hellaciously big. It seems Hella is in an epoch similar to Earth's Jurassic or Cretacious periods. There are species similar to dinosaurs, and they are named accordingly, but it is also continually repeated that is just convenient description due to the similarities. There is a danger of relying on Earth knowledge to describe them. There are also bird-like, fish-like, and insect-like life forms, but it is possible the similarities are superficial. Only time and further exploration will tell. I haven't read anything that suggests this is the start of another trilogy, but I hope it is. [EDIT: David confirms he has already started on Hella II.]

Kyle is somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He is highly intelligent and an avid researcher of everything Hella. I was thinking it would make sense if Hella was just his nickname for the planet, but even though it is not its official designation it is everyone's accepted name. There are two major settlements on Hella, Summerland and Winterland, along with several isolated research stations. The novel opens with Kyle's first opportunity to go on a ride-along outside Summerland's security perimeter, due to an injury sustained by his older brother, Jamie. Captain Skyler chooses Kyle over another who had seniority, but he had legitimate reasons, which I will not spoil here. We get Kyle's first-hand observations of both Leviathans and Carnosaurs on the expedition, and later he begins a series of videos to share with the newly arrived colonists on the Cascade, which is ahead of schedule. I have a suspicion that these portions of the book will be deemed boring to some readers. Remember, Kyle is a meticulous researcher, and he is in love with Hella, and wants to share as much of its awesome beauty as possible, but he speaks in a methodical monotone. He later lets the video, along with music, tell the story. I approached those scenes as if they were a David Attenborough documentary, with Kyle's informative descriptions painting vivid images in my mind. Yes, some of those descriptions are long and tedious, but it is another way Gerrold has used to give insights into Kyle's psychological profile. Unfortunately, one of the colony's council members objects, saying Kyle's focus on the monstrous beasts might be scaring the new colonists. There are already concerns about supplies and accomodations due to the Cascade's early arrival, Councilor Layton does not want anything else to interfere with their smooth assimilation.

Most science fiction is in conversation with the genre. Writers are inspired by those who have gone before. They rework themes, create homages to other works, or in some cases refute the notions of previous creators. I mentioned in my review of the Dingilliad that the major influence was Heinlein's juveniles, and with the possible exception of two or three of those, Gerrold's work is superior in both content and style. He has been able to explore themes denied Heinlein (until his later career at least) due to the editorial restraints of the time. Hella is in another conversation, one for which I think an appropriate subtitle for the book would have been "When Harlie Was Twelve." The latest version of HARLIE (Human Analog Replication, Lethetic Intelligence Engine) is the most advanced and powerful intelligence engine ever created, its strength being that each successive generation has been responsible for creating, and being incorporated into, the latest version. Introduced in the 1972 novel When Harlie Was One, and mentioned in a few others, Harlie was instrumental in helping the Dingillian family escape adversarial forces on the Moon and board the Cascade. Charles introduces Kyle to Harlie, who tells Kyle that everything is a conversation. Harlie's ultimate goal is to understand humans, the most complex creatures in the universe, and he does that by conversing with them to learn more. Harlie implores Kyle to be aware of which conversations are the most important. Everyone's goals, and success at acheiving them, is dependent on choosing the right conversations, and choosing the right people as conversational partners. Another thing about the best SF, it is usually as much about current events as it is the futuristic scenario, and several of the revisions from the draft will reverberate with today's readers. One of the major examples of that is Councilor, later Coordinator, Layton, who wants things his way, and he undermines or eliminates anyone who is in oppostion to his plans.

There are a few elements I could nit-pick if I felt like it, but they are minor and inconsequential, so I have no qualms about rating this 5 stars on Goodreads, the maximum allowed. Its strengths far outweigh any short-comings. Highly recommended, and I can't wait for the next book in the sequence. It is a hellacious story.


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David Gerrold

June 16, 2020

Available from amazon.com

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.