(2007) Eric Brown, Solaris, £7.99, pbk, 341pp, ISBN 978-1-844-1-6974-X
There is something of the Golden Age of science fiction writing in Eric Brown's Helix. It may be the wide-eyed wonder he tries to incite in the reader, or it could be the relative innocence of his characters in the face of the phenomenal wonders of science. It has the great sense of optimism about the future that those early works had, no matter how grim the circumstances. And it is, at heart, a good adventure novel; Brown's prose is plain and transparent, avoiding any pretension, while character development plays second fiddle to the plot. We begin on Earth in the near-future, hanging around long enough to learn of the wasteland that mankind has made of their home planet. Joe Hendry lives in relative isolation until he learns of a mission to colonise a distant world. Seizing the opportunity to leave behind mankind's mistakes, he joins the crew where he hopes to spend the remaining years of his life with his daughter. Things don't go quite to plan though, and their starship crash-lands on the huge spiralling construct, the Helix. In their attempts to find habitable sections of this bizarre world they have to face dangers unlike anything they've ever experienced, as well as the familiar flaws of human (and alien) nature.
It is not long into the book before you find yourself running through a large number of atypical SF tropes, the artificial world in the non-standard sphere shape being the most obvious. But there is also the post-apocalyptic Earth that the characters are escaping from, the episodic encounters with strange creatures and cultures and the absent, ancient alien race that seems to be the creative force behind the Helix. To Brown's credit, he keeps the story moving with some nice character developments and sub-plots. It is very readable and, despite a plot that involves travelling to several varied 'worlds', it rarely drags or features scenes that feel redundant. But it never seems that Brown delves deep enough into his themes - this is sci-fi adventure rather than hard science. Few of the real issues of colonisation are addressed, and the Helix is only used as a unique setting rather than a genuinely intriguing scientific construction. The 'culture clash' sub-plots work well, as members of primitive Helix societies come to terms with creatures as bizarre and ugly to them as they are to us. But conversely, one of the major plotlines, the story of a young engineer and entrepreneur disputing the authenticity of a tyrannical religion, never really takes this theme beyond providing a villain to chase the characters across the Helix and further the story.
The biggest problem with Helix is not that it is derivative, it is that it fails to develop either its themes or characters beyond what is required for the plot. It is a confidently written adventure novel that builds colourful settings around a selection of interweaving storylines that will keep you involved to the end. For a writer with a significant back catalog of material, I would expect that Brown is at his best when writing such thrill-packed space opera. Just don't expect the unexpected.
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