Published by Solaris
Eric Brown: http://www.ericbrown.co.uk/
While some people are bemoaning the dwindling of science fiction and fantasy, it is difficult to really argue in favor of that judgment. More anthologies are being published and more so, over the past couple of years, new publishers & imprints have been cropping up, which leads to this review of Eric Brown’s Helix, from new imprint Solaris. The book was published in June 2007 and had been on the shelves for a while before I got to it. This seems to be the case for the book in general, as I haven’t seen a great many reviews (Strange Horizons & SF Signal notwithstanding). This is something of a minor travesty because Helix is a damned good book. Will it win Hugo or Nebula awards? Possibly. Even if it is a notch under award-worthy in some people’s opinions, this makes the book no less worthy, compares favorably to Peter F. Hamilton, and is a fine example of modern or New Space Opera.
Enough with prelude and onto the story: the book takes place about a century from now when war, among other events, has made the earth an increasingly uninhabitable planet; both the ecology and technology are suffering. The space program has been working to find a way for humanity to survive; however. Brown introduces readers to Hendry, a man whose wife left him and whose daughter is often on missions for the space agency that prevent her from visiting him. Hendry eventually is given crew membership on a colony ship that will be repopulating humanity on another habitable planet. As one of the primary mechanics/engineers assigned to work on the ship, Hendry holds a nice everyman role and serves as a great point of view character for the narrative. This is where Brown’s ability to balance the novel begins to come into play; he introduces a believable troop of characters to fill out the crew of the Lovelock. Each of these characters, whether the surly Friday Olembre; Hendry’s romantic counterpart Sissy Kalucheck; or the intriguing Gina Carelli is fully realized. Brown reveals a depth of backstory for each of these characters that pleasingly falls just short of info-dump.
The humans on Lovelock are not the only characters in the book; they do after all manage to crash on an alien planet. The planet, at first, seems similar to Earth until they realize multiple intelligent species inhabit the planet. Before Brown introduces the characters to the dominant alien species on the planet; however, he introduces the reader to them. From all accounts, their culture resembles humanity during the Middle Ages or Renaissance years and is strictly overseen by an all-powerful church. While their culture resembles ours in some ways, their physical resemblance isn’t quite as close.
The crew of the Lovelock soon realizes the world on which they’ve landed is not exactly friendly. They also learn that it is just one of many connected worlds arranged in a helix structure around a powerful sun, which resembles beads on a string. In some ways, the Helix itself is one of the great classical science fiction tropes: the Big Dumb Object (BDO). Once Hendry and crew discover the artificial nature of the Helix, they naturally want to discover who built it and how it was accomplished. So, Brown throws a lot of things into this novel familiar to readers of science fiction: a colony ship; a clash of alien cultures; and an ubiquitous BDO – the Helix itself. Each one of these story elements, ingredients, what have you, is a natural extension of the other and Brown interweaves all of them rather seamlessly.
One of the toughest things to pinpoint in Helix is just what element Brown handles best. The interaction and drama within the crew of the Lovelock is handled very well. The aliens and their cultures are both plausible and fascinating. The eponymous BDO is a fascinating mystery that holds much of the narrative together. Suffice to say, Brown packs a great deal into Helix and the narrative doesn’t really slow a bit.
It is difficult to come up with any real negative about the book. The only thing that comes to mind immediately is a somewhat contrived backstory for one of the characters. At least it seemed a bit contrived when it first arose in the plot, but as the story fleshed itself out, this back story “contrivance” morphed into a interesting subplot. In the short, my mild frustration was allayed.
To recap, Helix is a more than solid Space Opera, an interesting character study, an examination of a big dumb object, a novel of colonization and human/alien interaction. I enjoyed the novel a great deal and had a very difficult time putting the book down when my lunch hours ended. I would recommend Helix without hesitation to long-time fans of science fiction as well as those looking to get a feel for what good space-based science fiction is all about.
© 2008 Rob H.