Visions of Paradise

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Eric Brown is one of several British sf writers who have not had much of an impact in America, but whose names I have seen in the pages of Interzone. Several of them appeared in the anthology The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, writers such as James Lovegrove, Eric Brown and Adam Roberts. Brown’s "The Farewell Party" was one of the highlights of the book, so when his novel Helix was published recently, containing one of the most wondrous sf big concepts since Robert Reed’s "great ship" or even Larry Niven’s "ringworld," how could I resist it?

The novel begins in a new-future dystopic Earth on the verge of total dissolution. A group of scientists in Switzerland are preparing a secret mission to send a colonizing ship to a distant star system. The mission almost fails before it even begins as a group of terrorists tries to destroy the starship. But they escape Earth successfully and travel to what they expect is a distant world but which turns out to be a helix containing thousands of individual barrel-shaped planets.
Most of the intended colonists are in suspended animation, so the point of view characters are five people who serve as the preliminary explorers for the colonists. They have considerable emotional issues, particularly Hendry who is mourning the death of his daughter who was one of the colonists whose pod malfunctioned before arrival at the helix; and Sissy who hates another member of their group Olembe who, in addition to being an arrogant bastard, raped her at a costume party when they were freshmen in college many years ago, but because of the costumes he has no idea she was his victim.

The first worlds they reach are ice worlds lying on the lower levels of the helix far from the sun. They encounter a civilization of small, lemur-like people which is rigidly-controlled by an autocratic religion who, because of the perpetual haze which totally shields their city from the sky, believe that theirs is the only world and they are the only intelligent people. Thus a crisis occurs when two religious skeptics leading a group of explorers in a dirigible encounter an alien visitor from an adjacent barrel world almost simultaneously as a group from the church captures the four explorers from Earth.

Although this world has enough potential for an entire novel, Brown realizes that the wondrousness of the helix demands his explorers escape the church’s grip and travel to other helix worlds. Which they do, discovering a variety of exotic worlds populated with wondrous alien beings and their fascinating societies. Brown could not resist a bit of thriller aspect though as minions of the repressive church use the alien’s spaceship to chase the four explorers to other worlds with the intention of killing them and any other evil beings they might encounter.

While this description seems over-the-top, Brown generally controls it well. Helix never descends into the helter-skelter illogic of a thriller, and the pursuing Church militia are dispatched fairly easily at the novel’s end. The book does have a few other flaws though. Brown’s anti-organized religion fervor is too black-and-white, making all true believes either fools or evil. And Brown’s attempts at characterization are a bit heavy-handed, especially in Hendry’s memories of his dead daughter and Sissy’s dealings with Olembe.

But these weaknesses are more than made up for by the book’s sense of wonder which compares favorably with Reed and Niven. While I was not totally convinced by the novel’s climactic meeting between the humans and the builders of the helix, overall the novel was fascinating and mostly believable. When I finished reading it, I was anxious to read more novels about the helix, which I guess is enough recommendation for any book. I also wanted to go back and read the latter Ringworld novels, which I have not done, as well as Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville novels, another big-concept world. Sometimes a big concept populated with exotic worlds and aliens is one of science fiction’s grandest moments.


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