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Helix
Eric Brown
Solaris paperback £7.99

review by Jim Steel

Eric Brown has been steadily producing science fiction for two decades now, and has quietly built up a considerable body of work. In some ways he could be regarded as the secret weapon of British science fiction. He even suffered a backlash a couple of years back, for no better reason than some people seemed to decide that it was his turn. It didn't stick. For a start, Brown is a craftsman who cares about what he produces. This is the man who scrapped his first novel after it had already been bought by a major publisher as he didn't feel it was up to scratch.

Helix starts at the end of the 21st century. Things have continued in their current direction. The Earth is screwed. Global warming and resource wars have decimated the planet, and it is possible that humanity could now number in the tens of millions. Hendry was once involved in the space industry before it collapsed and the colonies were abandoned. He's eking out a living as a farmer in Australia when his daughter, Chrissie, announces that she has landed a place in the Lovelock, which will take four thousand suspended-animation colonists to another star system. It is probably humanity's last throw of the dice. A bombing by deep environmentalist terrorists means that Hendry is offered a place as well.

An accident happens and the Lovelock crash-lands on a frozen world. Hendry is distraught to learn that Chrissie is one of the thousand fatalities. One of Brown's recurrent motifs is the tragic death of a woman and, as it happens early on in Helix, it acts as a useful and successful character developer for Hendry. Only six of the crew (soon to be four) are revived initially, and they find that they are on a very strange world indeed. The obvious point of comparison is with Larry Niven's Ringworld, but one of the characters describes it as six rows of beads twisted around a sun, with each bead comprising a barrel shaped world that is separated from the next by an ocean. It is also possible to jump up a tier if spacecraft or orbital towers can be utilised. The four decide to leave the other survivors in suspended animation and look for somewhere more hospitable to start the colony. The interplay between the four is complex and rewarding. Lies are being told, agendas are being hidden, and some are not who they seem.

In another thread, an oppressively theocratic culture sets outs to explore its section of the Helix. At first we are not sure if they are human or not (there is the possibility that they are the colonists' descendents) until Brown deftly settles it with one disorientating word dropped into the text. It's a masterful stroke of writing.

All in all, it's a fine novel. Whereas Niven used his world as an adventure playground, Brown uses the Helix as a setting to explore morality and faith. His withering assault on dogmatic cruelty leaves scope for tolerance and leads us to a transcendental climax. Conceptual breakthroughs abound and there are aliens and adventures aplenty in here, with ideas scattered like coins before us. Flaws? There aren't many. If anything, one strand of the plot, between two of the survivors, seems to finish rather anticlimactically, giving a slightly rushed feeling to the ending. Better that, though, than padding it out when the reader really wants to go sightseeing around the Helix. It's a double-edged desire, however. Part of me hopes that Brown resists the temptation to set another novel here and head down the path of diminishing intellectual returns (he does give us enough on the Builders to make that an unnecessary option), and part of me wants to further explore this wonderful and exotic place.
Helix by Eric Brown

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