Eric Brown’s original Helix (2007) was merely an introduction in what the Helix has in store in terms of alien culture and alien architecture. Recall first reading Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and remember gaping at awe in the possibilities of exploring its swathe of cultures and plumbing the depths of its remarkable architecture? That is exactly the same anticipation I felt with Helix, possibilities for sequel was bountiful and which path Brown would choose had me titillated. When the sequel was finally announced, the dully titled novel diminished my hopes for a successful continuance.
Rear cover synopsis:
“The Helix: a vast spiral of ten thousand worlds turning around its sun. Aeons ago, the enigmatic Builders constructed the Helix as a refuge for alien races on the verge of extinction.
Two hundred years ago, humankind came to the Helix aboard a great colony ship, and the builders conferred on them the mantle of peacekeepers. For that long, peace had reigned on the Helix. But when shuttle pilot Jeff Ellis crash-lands on the world of Phandra, he interrupts a barbarous invasion from the neighbouring Sporelli, who are now racing to catch and exterminate Ellis before he can return to New Earth and inform the peacekeepers.”
Jeff Ellis is a man down on his luck. His marriage is failing and the death of their son didn’t rekindle the love he and his wife once shared. On a routine diplomatic mission, Jeff is shot down over the Helix planet named Phandra, which kills his two crewmembers and leaves his disabled on an alien planet with carnivorous plants and poisonous fruit. The meter-tall empathetic natives rescue Jeff and nurse him back to health. The clairvoyant Diviners predict that he’ll travel far and accomplish great things along with the native Healer Calla. Though Calla is two years from her destine death, she is predicted to share a tight bond with Jeff, in sickness and in health.
On one side of Phandra live the moderately technological D’rayni with their rich natural resources and the other adjacent side live totalitarian, resource-poor Sporelli. I order to obtain natural resources for their planned yet illegal expansion, the Sporelli aliens tread across Phandra unhindered by the puny passive empaths, “people with neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to commit violence” (124-125). The aliens’ destruction is sickening and their quest for power is sure to upset the Builders’ notion of causing no harm to other races. To enforce this peace, the Builders assigned the humans to be its peacekeeper while the Builders maintain a virtual existence aside from their prior corporeal reality: “Together they had set up the Peacekeepers and established the complex ground-rules and protocols governing the politically delicate matter of maintaining harmony between so many alien races” (165).
On the Helix, with “ten thousand worlds… and six thousand of them inhabited” (9) and “two hundred million kilometers long” (353), peace had reigned and the humans never had to militarily intervene. However, the Sporelli were “planning something, something which threatened the safety of the Helix and all the peaceable people upon it” (403). With the aggression, the Sporelli have surrendered their peacetime rights and become the focus of opposition from the Human Peacekeepers and the Mahkan Engineers, but both government are spineless to officially act in any capacity yet “will turn a blind eye to any individuals acting unilaterally” (286).
This unilateral attempt at defeating the aggressive Sporelli is spearheaded by the Mahkan alien named Kranda who initially set off to rescue Jeff from his downed craft because he had once saved her life. Together again and witnessing the rampant disregard for life, the two don a varnika exo-skeleton, which is Builder carbon technology that interfaces with the wearer’s nervous system, enhances perceptions, and renders the occupant invisible. With laser weaponry, the duo set off to rescue Healer Calla from the evil clutches of the Sporelli and get to the bottom of their greater intentions.
During an escape from the Sporelli, Engineer Kranda decides the best route of retreat is through the planet’s maintenance tunnels which deliver the two to the core of the Helix, a two hundred kilometer wide tunnel which bores through each planet and sea allowing the Engineers to traverse the Helix for repairs. This same system can also be used by nefarious tyrants bent on domination so Kranda and Jeff sneak onto the Sporelli planet to sift out the intentions of the planet’s authoritative ruler.
When the original colonists departed Earth and crash-landed on the Helix, they had been absent from Earth for one thousand years. Two hundred years after their arrival, they have established New Earth with “the ship’s vast cache of deep-frozen animal embryos” (11) yet the population of humans still wonder what has become of their home planet: “…what happened on old Earth? Did the rest of humanity die out? Do they still exist – and if so, then in what conditions?” (12). While the Helix is fascinating in its own right, the reminiscing of old Earth provides additional avenues of intriguing possibilities. The original colonization was attempted by earthman’s own feat, but if Earth were to near extinction, would the Builders save humanity? Five hundred light-years is no small hurdle for such technological achievers.
In regards to the plot, some of my expectations were met, but its delivery was reminiscent of a pulpy 1980’s science fiction novel: laser guns and invulnerable heroes. It also reminds me of why I dislike Star Trek so much: ubiquitously bipedal aliens fluent in English. This ease of language conveyance is a derelict jalopy from its predecessor, Helix: all these bipedal aliens are amazing adept at the nuances of the English language! Engineer Kranda may not know the word “haystack” but she’s certainly knows what “haiku” is. Even when the exo-skeletons are doing the translating, the alien vocabulary is suddenly expansive, eloquent, and thorough. I hate this ease-of-translation aspect in many other SF novels, too.
Helix Wars presents some intriguing technology, care of the Engineers and the Builders. The motives of the Builders, for their Helix construction and their seemingly benevolent attitude, isn’t explored so much in the plot (in the conclusion, it’s a different story). This isn’t a hard science fiction novel so don’t expect lengthy explanations or diagrams of the Helix’s construction. Brown offers up a few tidbits of technology which the reader has to take at face value (i.e. The Gaia Machines) and bits that keep revealing more applications (i.e. the varnika exo-skeleton).
Some of Eric Brown’s other novels have a deep humanistic nature, something which Helix lacked. Perhaps Brown has returned to his humanistic roots with the characterization of Jeff and the separation with his wife. This relationship and his attitude toward it greatly characterize Jeff and his rapport with the meek Healer Calla and the aggressive Engineer Kranda; where Calla suggests he show more emotion, Kranda proposes he show no remorse. Being the awkward human Jeff is, he is torn between the two lines of advice in his personal life with his wife and in the matters at hand with thousands of lives at stake. Jeff may be well drawn out, but the anthropomorphic alien cast dims the overall shine of the cast.
The title of the novel is a little strange if you can remember the noble efforts the original colonists wanted to infuse in their future society: “…we aren’t doomed to repeat our mistakes. I think we’ve learned from them, so that we can move on, build a successful society that doesn’t consume resources” (Helix , p.21) and “We might be human, but that doesn’t mean we’ll take our flaws to the stars—or if we do, then we’ll have systems in place to ensure that they don’t destroy us, or our new world” (Helix , p.21). With this in mind, the Builders granted humans the job of peacekeeping, but while peace reigns on the Helix, the insurgency of the Sporelli is cause for the human to take to arms to defend the peace… thereby reverting to war when they were promised to promote peace. The human bureaucracy’s inaction resulted in the murder of thousands on Phandra and D’rayni… that’s not peacekeeping.
Aside from Jeff’s decent characterization and some wow moments concerning the Helix, there’s not much else within Helix Wars. I read 280 pages in one day, so obviously it’s a pretty quick and easy read. I suppose there will be a further continuation of the Helix series, and if this continuation has anything to do with the conclusion, then sign me up! It pays to read this quickly so that you’ll absorb the nuances (the numbers!) to understand the possible implications of the conclusion because it’s not spelt out for you.