Eric Brown’s Helix a worthy addition to the list of artificial sci-fi worlds

Eric Brown’s engaging and enjoyable 2007 sci-fi adventure Helix hooked me sufficiently that I have immediately started on the sequel Helix Wars (2012). The key features of the book – an uncomplicated writing style, likeable characters and a vast and complex artificial structure – recall the works of luminaries like Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama).  R.J. Burgess, who reviewed this novel on the site Strange Horizons refers to the novel as ‘SF-lite bundled up in an interesting idea’; a very apt description indeed.

The story begins in the year 2095; the Earth is dying from the effects of global warming and wars. In a last ditch attempt to create a new beginning for humanity, the European Space Organization outfits a starship with 3000 colonists and sends it out on a 1000-year one-way trip to a habitable planet in a distant star system. The passengers are put into cryo-sleep, with the multinational flight and maintenance crew (3 women and 2 men) scheduled to be revived first on arrival; one of them, a middle-aged Australian pilot named Joe Hendry is one of the lead characters in the story. The starship arrives at its destination as scheduled, but then things start to go horribly wrong. There is a crash, some deaths and the discovery that they have landed not on a planet, but a vast artificial structure which they christen The Helix, due to its spiral shape.

The story details the crew’s struggle for survival and the outcome of their ‘first contact’ with the myriad aliens living on the Helix. Eric Brown’s aliens are not particularly exotic; they seem to behave and emote in a very human-like way, while in form they are anthropomorphized versions of Earth creatures like lemurs, lizards and insects. I enjoyed the book precisely because it is ‘SF-lite’; focusing more on the characters and the story, rather than trying to explain the physics of the Helix or trying to be super-realistic with its exobiology.

With the Helix structure consisting of thousands of different worlds, Eric Brown has a potential franchise on his hands, much as Niven and Clarke did with the Ringworld and Rama series respectively. The sequel Helix Wars is set 200 years after the events of Helix and future books can easily flit back and forth through time and across the different sections of the Helix.

Mr. Brown is a prolific author, churning out a book a year (sometimes two in the same year) in sci-fi and mystery/ crime genres. He has just published his latest work, a steampunk novel set in British India in 1925 titled Jani and the Greater Game, which I’m looking forward to reading as well.

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