Helix by Eric Brown

Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 480
Year: 2007
Buy: Paperback
Source: Bought copy

Helix by Eric BrownReview
With the world dying around them, a few thousand individuals are given the chance to leave the drowning, roasted Earth behind them and to sleep their way to a new habitable planet where humanity can begin again. The dreams of many end for good when their vessel crashes on a planet which turns out to be one of many worlds linked together into a helix. Unfortunately, the ship has landed at the very bottom, in an environment too cold and hostile for settlement. Leaving their precious human crew either asleep or dead, four individuals set out on the most enormous task of trying to ascend the helix to search for a suitable place to colonise and bring the others. All the time, though, the two men and two women must keep their wits about them. Mysterious forces seem at work, associated with strange alien structures which allow them to climb the helix, and there is also life, lots of it.

Helix begins in a most intriguing way. Joe Hendry is a man winding down, watching his life in Australia disappear under the sea, living an isolated, increasingly hungry existence. when he discovers that his daughter Chrissy is one of those who will leave Earth on this grand scheme to establish a new colony in the stars, he is more than ready to let go, content that she will survive. But, as a one-time pilot responsible for ferrying people and cargo between the inner planets, it seems he still has a use and he is enlisted as crew on the ship that is to carry his sleeping daughter.

The novel takes on a whole new shape entirely after the ship crashes onto Helix. From then on, it’s the story of our four survivors – their struggle and their relationships – alternating with sections which describe instead the adventures of engineer Ehrin Telsa and Sereth, his partner. Ehrin is about to embark on a great journey of his own. Its mission is to cross the plain on which he lives and to reach new lands that his father once visited many years before, which contained such mysteries that they cost him his life. For Ehrin is an alien occupant of the helix. His world is curtained in cloud and ignorance and policed by a deeply suspicious, oppressive state religion. This is a world in which everything could be about to change and not easily.

Eric Brown has the wonderful ability to paint worlds with the lightest of touches. What he describes is so easy to visualise and it can be awe inspiring. For me, though, his strength is in populating these worlds with believable yet complex people who can be driven by a range of motives and emotions. The four humans who climb the helix, hunting for peace and space, each carry demons inside them but much of what they feel is caused by fear, misunderstandings, grief but also wonder and curiosity. These are people who’ve had to deal with the end of the world, quite literally, and now, in the face of learning the true definition of loneliness and discomfort, they must overcome the challenges of a helix which clearly cannot be natural and is filled with a myriad of alien species.

As for Ehrin and Sereth, they have their own troubles, most of them caused by religion and superstition. The discovery that they live on a helix of worlds, an artificial structure, could destroy them. It could certainly destroy the relationship between Ehrin and Sereth. In a way, their civilisation is a human medieval society, believing itself on a flat world with edges, created and governed by the laws of God. Religion here is most definitely not a force for good; the Helix’s creator, nor its purpose, unlikely to be divine.

The alien species are curious in their appearance – they have been likened to lemurs but they reminded me of mongooses or meerkats on two legs – and it is fun to read of their reactions to humans. This is their first contact too. But what the aliens are capable of is horrifying.

Helix is a compelling, highly visual novel set in a universe that is hard for the characters to understand. It has less to do with science, than with exploration, second chances and the nature of faith. The reader, too, is just as keen to discover the mystery of the helix and the identity of its builders. As a result, it is very hard to put down or forget. I have become a big fan of Eric Brown’s work in 2013 and after reading Helix this is set to continue.

Other review
The Serene Invasion

Note: my kindle version of Helix was faulty, missing a vital section. I’m grateful to the publisher for sending me a new version when I queried it but given a choice again I would read the print version.

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