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Book Review: Helix by Eric Brown

* Genre: Science Fiction, Apologetics, Space Opera
* ISBN: 1844164721
* ISBN-13: 9781844164721
* Format: Mass Market Paperback, 528pp
* Publisher: Solaris
* Pub. Date: May 2007
* Author Website
* Read an Extract at Infinity Plus

In Helix, by Eric Brown, mankind has managed to destroy Earth. Through a combination of mismanagement, global warming, and an inability to work together, Earth is rapidly becoming uninhabitable. Yet still, man is unable to come together to work for the common good. As a result, the remaining global government has decided that they will send a ship at sub light speed a thousand years away to the nearest habitable world. Joe Hendry, an isolationist and former space engineer, is chosen to accompany this mission after the original team is brutally murdered by terrorists. The small team of five must bring the colonists safely to the new planet. Unfortunately, just as the Lovelock nears the location of the planet, a series of explosions causes them to crash land on a helical series of worlds around a G-type sun. Recognizing instantly that the Helix, composed of thousands of small worlds, has to be the construct of an advanced alien race, Hendry and crew begin a search for the creators of the Helix. Along the way, the encounter antagonistic alien races, as well as a few helpful ones. The only question is; will the team be torn apart by internal strife before they can solve the puzzle of the Helix?

One part Star Trek episode, one part social commentary, and one part action adventure story, Helix is an enjoyable apologetic, but a rather dull story. When it comes to the setting of the Helix, a world made up of ten thousand worlds, each with its own unique ecosystem, Brown has created a story unlike any other. In this way, I was reminded very much of several Star Trek episodes in which Captains Kirk or Picard come across an advanced alien civilization, and are forced by circumstance to discover the strange origins of a planet or ship. In the same way, Hendry and crew must discover the origins of the Helix, in order find a way for the colonists (frozen in cryo-sleep until the crew wakes them) to rebuild human society.

Brown has not shied away from making social commentary. His anti-organized religion, pro-environmentalism worldview gets rather pedantic and preachy at times. For those who don’t agree with Brown’s agnostic, Gaia-worshipping worldview this novel will be at best annoying, at worst angering. The villains of the tale are a Catholic church like entity, whose subscriptions to pigheaded doctrines make them evil and self-serving. The heroes are those who would break with that tradition and proclaim themselves either atheist or multicultural. The story isled wraps around this philosophy, and all the events and dialogue of the tale are primarily geared toward presenting an apologetic for Brown’s worldview. For those who like Philip Pullman, this book is a sci-fi version of The Golden Compass. The questions that Brown raises are good ones, but his hatred of religion shines through clearly and those who hold to any sort of religious faith, save perhaps Buddhism or pagan/Wicca, will probably not like the tale’s attacks on their way of life.

As an action adventure story, Helix works well. Brown is a capable writer, and his story never lacks motion. Readers will enjoy the encounters with new sentient species by the humans, and the strange setting that Brown has placed them in. The characters live on the razor’s edge of survival, and their near death experiences add excitement to the tale.

The plot is simple. The characters hop from world to world till they find the “Builders” of the Helix. Once there, they learn their true nature, and give up all the war and violence of their past. A worthy ideal to be sure, but perhaps a little too idealistic for reality.

There are some plot holes in Helix perhaps, especially when it becomes clear that some races are technologically advanced enough to move between worlds, but yet seem to only work on destroying themselves, rather than pursuing conquest, as would be more logical. The Helix is designed in such a way as to make a conquering species seem more likely than only those with self-destructive tendencies. Of all the sentient species encountered by the humans, they are either self-destructive, insular, or enlightened to the point of transcendence. While this reflect aspects of many cultures we encounter even today, it leaves out the obvious ones of the conquerors, which have been more prevalent than any other in our own history, and logically would be true of most sentient races. That sort of forced cultural behavior works for Brown’s apologetic, but doesn’t work with our understanding of the nature of beings. Nations will want to destroy or conquer nations before destroying themselves, and in the Helix, such other nations (i.e. worlds) are readily available. This lack of a conquering mentality could be ascribed to the nature of the aliens being different, but I still think that a lame excuse for what is really a hole in the plot.

Readers should approach Helix aware that this story is an apologetic first, and a story second. Brown obviously wants us to learn something about the evils of organized religion and the freeing nature of atheism. This is his right as a writer to do so. But for me, stories that begin this way, rather than for the sake of telling a good story, always end up being rather dry and tasteless. Sometimes such worldview apologetics can be well-integrated into the story so that the reader hardly notices. Helix is quite the opposite. Eric Brown is in your face about the worldview he is presenting, and for many readers, that can be a quick turn-off, no matter how good the setting, or interesting the characters. (The characterization, by the way, is a bit dull, following the standard form of one bad guy, one hero, one love interest, and one mysterious person. I didn’t delve into the characters much in this review, because any regular reader of SF will spot their natures and the roles they will play instantly.)

The story has a good setting, although the plot is substandard and simplistic. Brown shows a great deal of potential, but his message drowns out the enjoyment of the story. If he had tones it down, or integrated it better, I would have given this tale high marks. As it is, Helix is an apologetic that will appeal best to those who share Brown’s worldview, but that will find few fans among those who don’t share his notions.

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