on 8 August 2012
Eric Brown has had two things going for him: (1) he has penned a large and diverse bibliography with earth- and space-based stories, each as enticing as the next and (2) he has continually introduced stories highlighting characterization. These two broad elements of Brown's writing were prevalent in the first three Brown novels I've read: The Fall of Tartarus (2005), Engineman (1994), and Guardians of the Phoenix (2010). The first hiccup came when I read Brown's newest novel, Weird Space: The Devil's Nebula, which mainly failed because I expected a strong story with a strong cast. Undeterred, I was eager to dig into another Brown novel--Helix, at 526 pages, was begging to be read!
Rear cover synopsis:
"Five hundred years from its launch, the colony vessel Lovelock is deep into its sub-lightspeed journey, carrying four thousand humans in search of a habitable planet. When a series of explosions tear the ship apart, it, it [sic] is forced to land on the nearest possible location: a polar section of the Helix--a vast, spiral construct of worlds, would about a G-type sun.
"While most of the colonists remain in coldsleep, the surviving crew members of the Lovelock must proceed upspiral in search of a habitable section. On their expedition they encounter extraordinary landscapes and alien races, meet with conflict and assistance, and attempt to solve the epic mystery that surrounds the origin of the Helix."
In 2095, the Earth was under the corruption of the people she housed, a natural extension the people being so corrupt on the personal level that it was inevitably mirrored in society at large (13). Even at the national level, "eighty percent of other European countries... suffered from civil wars, plagues, societal breakdown" (41) because of the "droughts, rising sea levels and resource wars" (16), dwindling the Earth's population to mere millions. The one hope remaining, secreted against attacks by neo-Luddites, was the construction of a orbiting colony ship. Onboard were to be four thousand cryogenically frozen colonists and a small crew to oversee the piloting an engineering. One of the corpsicles was to be Chrissie and one of the crew was to be her father, Hendry.
While "cruising at just under the speed of light" (79), the main engines blew "a parsec away" (83) from their destination. "Running on auxiliaries" (81) at "thirty percent efficiency" (82), the colony ship is able to make atmospheric entry on the frigid yet inhabitable surface below (improbable???). One thousand years had passed [erroneously stated as five hundred in the book's synopsis] since the ships departure but most of the six-man crew are able to walk from the massive wreckage of their colony ship. Besides Hendry the smartware expert, one African nuclear engineer (Friday Olembe), one Taiwanese pilot (Lisa Xiang), one American pilot (Greg Cartwright), one Inuit cryonics specialist (Sissy Kaluchek) [ha!], and one Italian medic (Carrelli) also make up the crew... but two of them perish soon after landing, one from injuries sustained during the another by the lethal hands of the hostile aliens.
One thousand colonists, including Hendry's daughter, are killed in the tumultuous descent but the four-man crew forge on to find a most hospital region of the tract they've landed on. When they peer into the sky, the wondrous sight of a coiled helix around the sun awes them. Themselves, on the lowest polar region of the Helix, the sight above them is spectacular: "each curving tier is make up of thousand of individual worlds... like beads on a rosary, each world turning... on a horizontal axis" (161) with "landmass in the entire helix to contain over ten thousand planets the size of Earth" (160). [Compare with Niven's Ringworld: a surface area a billion times as the Earth's surface.] Their procession to the next rung is aided by a mysterious elevator system but soon hampered by the same mechanism... this the world home of the city of Agstarn.
Agstarn is ruled by the Church, an institution dedicated to eradicating dissent even when the truth opposes the Church-sanctioned stance, according to its Book of Books. The intellectual veil of the Church is synonymous with the permanent veil of cloud of gray which hangs over their world. Ehrin's father was dissident an a well-known dirigible mogul before "an accident" saw the company transferred to Ehrin. Ehrin approaches the Church with a proposition to explore the mountainous regions by dirigible for ore and for contact. Given that the Church stance is that their world is a platform which "floats in the limitless sea of the Grey" (127), any discovery could be seen as heretic.
Worlds collide when an alien from an adjoining planet contacts the exploration team. Suddenly, their reclusive nature is shattered and unlimited opportunity seems to be at Ehrin's feet. Then the humans from the colony ship are captured, traded, and beat into submission by the church, whose sudden appearance is wrongfully blamed on Ehrin. The three alien races will soon find themselves part of something much bigger than their own species' destiny. Outside of the city of Agstarn and over its seas, the Helix beckons them to "wonder at the vastness of the construct, awe at the fact of its existence, curiosity at the mystery of its provenance" (358).
The alien cast are perhaps more interesting than the human crew of four. Ehrin is the heterodox but his fiancée is the daughter of the Elder of the Church. The friction between the two appears to be playful at first but it soon becomes the crux of their explorative frisson. The humans, on the other hand, bring with them the troubles which besought them on Earth--self-pity and acute distrust. A bubbling love story softens the friction between the four of them, but a back story seems drive a wedge between one of the crew and the rest.
I didn't think that the aliens were too exotic. Ehrin is a member of a bipedal one-meter all weasel-like species, while two of the other species mentioned in the book are also bipedal and exhibit very anthropomorphic actions, attitudes, and inventions. The most irksome quality found in Helix, and in many early science fiction books, is the ease of translation (instantaneous or prolonged). The answer for the ease of translation is ludicrous, as if all languages are based on algorithms and predictability (e.g. look at what a mess the English language is). The further up the Helix the team ascends, the more interesting the aliens become and the closer they come to the truth of the Helix.
The ultimate quest for the truth of the Helix is convoluted. The four-man crew are to find a new world for the frozen colonists to inhabit; instead they are eager to find the answers to the mystery of the Helix, a secret which hampers their duty to the three thousand colonists. They may need help settling the colonists somewhere upspiral, but heading straight into the lair of "the Builders" may not be their best bet. Making due in the polar subregions of the Helix may have to suffice, but the stubborn crew persist on exploration.
Taken as a whole, the book reminded me of two novels: (1) obviously, Larry Niven's Ringworld is another world which has mysterious origins and is inhabited by an untold number of aliens and (2) Louis Trimble's The Wandering Variables (1972) where a xeno-social experiment is being conducted on a planet. One character hypothesizes, "...the tiers were developed expressly for air-breathers, who were then brought here, if they were brought here, perhaps as some kind of experiment" (230). The wonder that the Helix inspires if most welcome to modern science fiction... that sense of wonderment seems to have been lost somewhere along the way in favor of page length, profits, and sequel upon unending sequel.
Funnily enough... though written in 2007, Eric Brown has seen fit to actually MAKE a sequel for Helix, entitled Helix Wars (2012). Where Niven failed in Ringworld was his hesitant attitude in exploring the full depths of the possibilities in Ringworld. Eric Brown did just right in touching on different worlds on the Helix, a mere sample of the thousands of possibilities. When Stephen Baxter says, "This is the rediscovery of wonder," you can only expect big ideas or concepts to bud from Eric Brown. Hopefully, with fingers crossed to the point of breaking, Helix Wars, though dully titled, will be as exciting as Helix but with a wider range of alien variety.