Every so often, Baen republishes a really special, hard-to-find rarity. One of those is this work by the late Janet Kagan, Hellspark (also available via Amazon). Hellspark is one of the special favorite works of and acknowledged influences on Liaden Universe authors Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. As a sparkling example of the relatively rare sub-genre of anthropological science-fiction, predicated on exploration of different human and alien cultures, it opens a window into a marvelous wider galaxy that readers can only wish there had been more of to explore.
As with the Liaden books and P.C. Hodgell’s Kencyr series, Hellspark was published by Meisha Merlin, the SF and fantasy publisher that managed to go bankrupt while still owing its authors substantial amounts in unpaid royalties. When Steve Miller traveled down to take out what payment he could in the form of a truckload of boxes of unsold Liaden books from Meisha Merlin’s warehouse that he and Sharon Lee could sell via their web store, he found a box of Hellspark there and claimed that, too. They also sold those books, and passed the money on to Kagan. (I have one of those very books on my shelf now, in fact.) Sadly, Kagan passed away in early 2008.
I’m not sure whether Hellspark was ever available as an e-book before. Embiid sold a number of other Meisha Merlin books electronically; I suppose it might have had it, too. But even if it did, Embiid also went down years ago, so it hasn’t been available since. That it’s available now, and for just $5, is an amazing opportunity, and you should all go to Baen (or, if you must, Amazon) and buy and download it right away. It’s an amazingly good book, and it makes me sad every time I consider that there will never be any sequels to it.
As for what it’s about… Well, I don’t want to spoil the story. But it involves a Hellspark trader captain named Tocohl and her “serendipitist” companion Alfvaen who are summoned to investigate a death at a planetary survey expedition. A “serendipitist” is a sort of troubleshooter who has a marked talent for being extremely lucky—happening to be in the right place at the right time by sheer serendipity.
And they’ll need all of that luck to solve this case. The investigation is a tricky situation, as it involves first contact with the primitive tribe of bird-like natives who inhabit the planet where the expedition has been sent—and many of those present have secrets that could complicate the investigation, not least of all Tocohl. There’s also some interesting discussion concerning the nature and rights of artificial intelligences.
Kagan only wrote two other novels and a collection of short stories (one of which won a Hugo in 1993). Baen has one other novel, Mirabile, and The Collected Kagan, also $5 each. Amazon also has both of these, as well as Kagan’s other novel, Uhura’s Song, a Star Trek tie-in that has been broadly acclaimed as one of the best of the Star Trek novels. Not being published by Baen, it costs a bit more at $9, but still worth it. None of these works seem to be available in new print editions, though you can find some of them in used paper (at fairly steep prices in the case of Hellspark and especially Mirabile).
Here’s another case where e-publishing works better—when you have no idea how much demand there will be for something, you don’t have to risk the cost of an expensive print run to see if there’s demand. And who knows? Maybe if there is sufficient demand, Baen could do an omnibus edition of the works, as it did for the Liaden Universe novels after originally republishing them as e-book collections.
I never had the chance to meet Janet Kagan, but I did exchange a couple of emails with her. I am looking forward to having Hellspark electronically, and getting the chance to read her other works as well. And you should, too! At $5 each (and $9 for the Trek book), how could you pass them up?