Tuesday, October 04, 2011
By Janet Kagan
Tocohl Susumo is a Hellspark, an interplanetary trader. Like other Hellsparks, she is an expert linguist and fluent not only in several languages but also in the customs and cultures of the peoples who speak those languages. She is called upon to bring her expertise to bear on the question of whether the denizens of a newly-discovered planet are sentient or not. If they are found to not be sentient, then the planet will be open to exploitation. But if they are, then the planet will be closed to development.
The corporation that is doing the initial survey of the planet would prefer that the natives be declared not sentient and the planet open to exploitation. But one of the expedition members is sure that the sprookjes, large, humanoid, bird-like beings are intelligent. The leader of the expedition has decided they are not, because they simply parrot what the people in their midst say, they don't really communicate. And that is where a Hellspark like Tocohl may be able to help. Because Hellsparks are not only expert linguists, they are also experts in body language and culture and may have the necessary knowledge to determine if the sprookjes are indeed sapient or just good at imitation.
But that is not the only reason Tocohl is there. She is also investigating the death of one of the expedition members who died under suspicious circumstances, including the fact that he was one of the staunchest defenders of the sprookjes. As her investigation continues, whoever killed the first man is definitely trying to eliminate Tocohl too.
I enjoyed this book. I liked Tocohl, she is smart, competent and cool. Although she is there to figure out if the sprookjes are intelligent, the main thrust of the novel is about how expedition members all try to get along in a very stressful situation and coming from widely separated backgrounds and clashing cultures. For instance, one woman comes from a planet where the people regard the bare human foot as shocking and indecent and another woman likes to run around bare foot, which produces tension between the two women. The different customs and cultures were interesting, as was Tocohl's near-sentient computer, Maggie. The only problem I had with the story was the rather minor role the humanoid alien sprookjes played in it. I would have liked a lot more about them.