In a future not quite comfortably distant from our own, Earth is a wreck thanks to pollution, civil strife, and an almost complete political breakdown. In an effort to continue the human race, the European Space Organization has commissioned the top-of-the-line spaceship Lovelock to carry thousands of colonists in cryogenic slumber to a nearby galaxy (read: only 1000 light years away) that has the possibility of being habitable. After a terrorist bomb kills most of the members of the ship’s skeleton crew destined to awaken earlier than the others to pilot the Lovelock to a suitable planet, former ESO engineer Joe Hendry is recruited as one of the replacements.
To Hendry, this is an unheard-of boon. His daughter, Chrissie, was chosen to be one of the colonists and he was never expecting to see her again. However, after 1000 years of travel, Hendry is woken from the deep-freeze to find the ship in flames and struggles with the other engineers (such as cynical nuclear engineer Friday Olembe, calm and collected medic Carelli, and spunky cryogenics specialist Sissy Kaluchek) to crash-land the sabotaged vessel on the nearest planet. The impact kills two of the crew and a quarter of the slumbering colonists — including Chrissie.
Reeling with grief, Hendry and the others nevertheless discover that the ice planet they’ve landed on is no ordinary, solitary world. The planet is just one in a chain of worlds, loosely connected by oceans, arranged like pearls on a string in a helix pattern around a single sun. The crew was only expecting to find one or two planets that might be habitable, but now they have the choice of literally thousands of worlds, arranged in a pattern that suggests an intentional design accomplished by an alien race with abilities far beyond human comprehension.
Thus begins a creative and evocative adventure story as the crew explore various worlds and tiers of the helix in their search for a planet worth colonising, or if not that, than at least some clue as to who could have created such a gargantuan structure. Eric Brown’s sharp pacing and vivid imagery create a startlingly varied picture of sentient life and interaction. While at least half the story focuses on the human characters, the other half is devoted to some of the alien characters they encounter, such as Ehrin, a furry, lemur-like being whose cloud-swathed planet is both unaware of the helix and ruled by a tyrannical Church who insists other planets cannot exist.
The story is really so engaging, colourful, and entertaining one might be tempted to forget its core theme as an exploration of the advantages and drawbacks of sentient life, thought, and choice. The Lovelock’s crew encounters races who live in spiritual and physical harmony, aliens whose technological advancements have resulted in destructive wars, as well as communities whose power-hungry authority figures are willing to repress intelligent thought in order to maintain superiority. Even the members of the crew are vulnerable to infighting, bickering, and outright hatred.
Helix is one of the few science fiction books that manages to make the future of humanity look both bleak and hopeful at the same time, and that’s a testament to Eric Brown’s skill with characterization, description, and narrative. The narrative itself is hardly a surprise, and the ending, with the “big reveal” of the extraterrestrials who created the Helix, is almost an anti-climax with how well-worn the ending device turns out to be. However, the real enjoyment of Helix comes from reading the journey itself, instead of the inevitable destination.