BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The crew of a colonist ship, which crash lands on a mysterious helix made up of thousands of worlds, sets out to find a suitable home planet and learn the mystery behind the creation of the helix itself.
PROS: Huge sense of wonder; interesting alien races; dramatic characterizations; page-turning.
CONS: The crew was sometimes not as careful as they should have been given their situation.
BOTTOM LINE: A perfect blend of ingredients. Equal parts adventure, drama and wonder.
As mentioned in the review of The Space Opera Renaissance, the definition of space opera is subjective, something that seems to be as hard to pin down as the definition of science fiction itself. Ingredients usually include such science fiction staples as laser blasters, spaceships, exploring the unknown, alien encounters, futuristic weapons, or a host of other elements. I say that good space opera is all these things but with the additional requirement that it be realistic and, most important of all, honest-to-goodness fun. After all, who the heck reads space opera looking for social commentary?
The problem with my definition is that it’s too hard to achieve or, more specifically, it’s often difficult to successfully maintain an appropriate balance between these elements. It can be done – Peter Hamilton did it wonderfully with Pandora’s Star. But then he dropped the ball with Judas Unchained. If a single author couldn’t maintain that magic, how could I rightfully expect it of others?
Along comes Eric Brown who makes it look so freakin’ easy that maybe, instead of hoping for well done space opera, I should be demanding it instead. His latest novel, Helix, is a premium blend of all the things that make space opera so appealing.
Imagine a decaying Earth on the brink of complete collapse after ecological problems have led to serious population decline. People are migrating towards the cooler Polar Regions and struggle to maintain some sense of cohesive civilization even though there is no turnaround in sight. The seemingly bleak future of mankind is not without hope, though. There is a covert mission to send thousands of colonists to a recently discovered planet whose astronomical conditions are favorable for habitation. Think of it as mankind’s final push for survival. Unfortunately, the ship crash lands on the planet, leaving its meager crew to search for a suitable home for the colonists (what’s left of them) who wait it out in cryogenic freeze. The crew’s search is, quite simply, the stuff of wonder. The planet turns out to be just one of thousands that are strung together along a helix formation around its single sun. Besides looking for a new home for mankind, the crew strives to unravel the mystery of the Helix itself.
Brown focuses his easily-digestible and page-turning narrative around the crew and the handful of aliens they meet during their travels, worming their way between the tiers of the Big Dumb Object. (Is a BDO still considered Dumb if its inclusion evokes enough wonder for several science fiction stories?) The characters of Helix are memorable because they are well drawn: the crew’s voice of reason Joe Hendry; tough cryogenics specialist Sissy Kaluchek; standoffish doctor Gina Carrelli; super-pessimistic Engineer Friday Olembe; alien engineer magnate Ehrin Telsa and his betrothed Sereth; strict alien Church Elder Cannak. The characters also carry enough dramatic baggage to challenge any daytime soap. Whether it was the uncomfortable friction between Kaluchek and Olembe, or the religious contention between furry, alien lovebirds Ehrin and Sereth, I was drawn to these back stories for their imaginative renderings and tension. Returning to Helix between reading sessions was like visiting old friends.
Ehrin and Sereth’s story thread in particular was quite well done. Ehrin runs his father’s company and airships are his game. (Airships!) Ehrin questions the strict rule of the Church and their tenet that their low-tech world, Agstarn, exists alone on a disc surrounded by a vast sea in the middle of infinite grayness. (Agstarn’s perpetual cloudiness prevents its inhabitants from seeing the arches of the helix during the plate’s rotation.) Sereth, Ehrin’s betrothed and the daughter of a Church Elder, naturally accepts this explanation of God’s creation. But an exploration to replenish Agstarn’s depleted resources means that the teachings of the Church are in jeopardy. The strict Church Officer Velkor Cannak is thus appointed to the expedition which prompts Ehrin’s partner, Kahran, to go along as well. Kahran is not on good footing with the Church from digressions years past. Brown uses all of these situations to deliver many tightly-delivered scenes of tension revolving around the religion vs. science theme. And when Ehrin and company eventually encounter the “evil” outsiders from Earth, things go from bad to worse.
But the human crew remains focused on their two objectives: locating a suitable planet for the colonists and learning the mystery behind the helix. Their travels up the tiers of the helix (in part facilitated by cool, inter-tier transport tubes) are the source of huge amounts of wonder. They visit new worlds, meet aliens, experience strange cultures, explore artifacts – all the stuff you want in good space opera. If I had any complaints, it was that sometimes their difficult tasks were complicated because they were not as careful as they could have been given their situation. For example, there was one scene where they decide to cross a sea between worlds cradled by flying aliens that resembled wind sails when they had a perfectly good ship at their disposal.
The thing that impresses the most is that none of these well-represented space opera tropes overpowers any other. In the end, Helix is equal parts adventure, drama and wonder. Sometimes they work alone, providing a raw dose of science fiction. Other times, Brown uses them in concert to spin an irresistible blend that pulls the narrative along almost faster than you can keep up. However it’s served, Helix is a delightful read and is an excellent reminder of why we read science fiction: it’s fun!