13 June 2016

Helix Wars

A review of Helix Wars by Eric Brown (Solaris Books, 2012) – originally published in Interzone

Helix Wars is the sequel to Eric Brown’s 2007 novel Helix, which described the arrival of humans on the Helix, a vast artificial environment created by a mysterious race of benevolent aliens known as the Builders as a refuge for intelligent races that have been threatened by extinction on their home worlds. The new story is set some 200 years later; human beings are now well-established on the Helix and have been appointed by the Builders to the largely diplomatic role of peacekeeping.

The central character, Jeff Ellis, is a shuttle pilot who regularly transports peacekeepers to other worlds of the Helix. However, on this occasion, his shuttle crashes on Phandra (a world occupied by tiny empathetic humanoids), killing his passengers and leaving Jeff himself seriously injured.

He is rescued by some Phandrans and restored to health by Calla, a Phandran healer. It transpires that he was shot down by the Sporelli, an aggressive authoritarian race who have invaded Phandra in order to gain access to the natural resources on another world further along the Helix. As soon as he is well enough, Jeff sets out with Calla to get news of this invasion back to the peacekeepers on New Earth. However, the Sporelli, having realized that he survived, pursue and capture them.

Fortunately for Jeff his crash has come to the attention of Kranda, a member of the warlike Mahkani (the Helix’s engineers), whose life he once saved. Because of their code of honour, she is now bound to rescue him and duly does so with the aid of some highly advanced Builder technology. Jeff then insists on rescuing Calla and in the process they save the Helix from an alien invasion.

Interwoven into this storyline is a secondary story about Jeff’s marital difficulties. Since the death of their son, he and his wife Maria have grown apart. This secondary story traces the denouement of Maria’s affair with her boss and Jeff’s clumsy efforts, based on advice from Calla, to seek reconciliation.

After some spectacular twists in the story, the storylines merge, Jeff is made an offer he can’t refuse by the Builders and they all live happily ever after.

The novel is driven by the well-paced action of the main storyline, while the secondary storyline serves to add depth to the central character, Jeff. However, Jeff apart, I was disappointed by the characterization in this novel. Most of the minor characters, particularly the aliens, are little more than two-dimensional stereotypes.

By contrast with the poor characterization, his description of alien technologies is very imaginative. The wind-powered mass transport system on Phandra is refreshingly novel, while the glimpses of the technology underlying the Helix itself are mind-blowing. Unfortunately he allows the technology to become a deus ex machina by providing Jeff and Kranda with nearly invulnerable Builder-designed exo-skeletons that all too easily enable them to overcome the challenges that face them.

In spite of my reservations, I enjoyed Helix Wars. It may not be Eric Brown at his best, but it is still imaginative, well-paced and easy to read.

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